A Sad Night for Conservatism

Bill Scher

Conservatism is addicted to snidery, and Gov. Sarah Palin looks to be just another pusher.

Unwilling to forcefully argue that our government shouldn’t do anything to strengthen our economy, guarantee health coverage or generate clean energy, conservative leaders try to keep their movement mobilized by playing off of foils. Caricaturing liberals and the media beyond recognition gives them enemies to unite against, and it’s easier to keep up a steady stream of fact-free insults than it is to come up with effective policies that keep America’s domestic economy and global standing strong.

But a strategy of snark comes up short when it’s time to govern. That’s the problem conservatism faces today—their policies have governed this nation for eight years, and most Americans think it has gone rather badly.

Conservatism has long stressed personal responsibility (at the expense of, instead of alongside with, shared responsibility). Yet there has been no acceptance of responsibility by conservatives at this week’s convention. Of note, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney dedicated his speech to concocting the fantasy that liberals have been in control of Washington for the last eight years.

Pailn was offered up as a fresh face at time when Americans are clamoring for change. She had an opportunity to note where conservatism overreached and underperformed. She had an opportunity show lessons learned that would help revamp and recalibrate conservatism to face the challenges of the 21st century, and address the concerns of the struggling middle-class.

Instead, as the American Prospect’s Mark Schmitt said, she was little more than a “90s flashback.” The blast of sarcasm played well with the Rush Limbaugh fans inside the hall, but Schmitt observed:

It was the face of the self-righteous, nasty party of Tom DeLay, John Boehner, Bill Frist, and George Allen. It was the face of Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney, not the softer and superficially more accommodating tones of Ronald Reagan and, to be fair, the election-year George W. Bush.

Michael Tomasky of The Guardian honed in on how her first impression would be among those outside the conservative bunker:

Let’s say I were a laid-off, $45,000-a-year worker in Ohio. If I were sitting on an olio of right-wing resentments, about elitist liberals and the media and this and that kind of thing, I may have fallen in love with her. She was that compelling as a human being.

But if I weren’t sitting on those resentments, I’d have been asking myself, “Uh, what exactly did she say to me, to address my concerns?” … Palin’s argument tonight wasn’t an argument, it was an arrow aimed at the viscera: If you relate to what I’m telling you about the media and these liberals, join the team. If you don’t, then … well, it seems that neither she nor the person who wrote the speech had the imagination to envision those people.

But the snidery feels too good coursing through conservative veins. It masks the need for introspection and internal reform that would help reach the broad middle of the electorate that is hurting.

Liberals have being going through an introspective process for some time (if anything, too long). Sure, there’s been plenty of mockery of conservative leaders. It just hasn’t been a substitute for crafting new ideas.

And so liberalism has re-emerged, revitalized with many new ideas that speak to today’s challenges: guaranteed health care for all with a choice of public and private plans, creating jobs by generating clean energy and modernizing infrastructure, a global economic strategy that lifts up workers worldwide, a foreign policy that eliminates the terrorist threat with a multilateral mix of hard and soft power.

Further, when it comes to humor, timing is everything. For conservatives, coming off of eight years of failure, they have set themselves up to be the punch line, not to deliver them.

But as Palin has shown, they know how to make themselves laugh—while inside the conservative cocoon. That may feel much better than owning up to their mistakes, but they will have to step out of that cocoon one of these days if they are to reconnect with the people whose lives their policies have harmed.

Politico quotes one “effusive” conservative activist, Craig Shirley:

“This speech might have just install Palin as the de facto leader of the conservative movement,” he said. “This is the fighter the ‘True Believers have been looking for since Gingrich led the GOP back in 1994. They are sick of the ‘we share your pain Republicans.’

Last night was a night where conservatives chose to embrace rehashed conservative snidery and ignore the pain that conservative policies inflicted on the public. That says quite a lot about the sad state of conservatism.

UPDATE: To put a fine point on it, ABC’s Jake Tapper spots a Michigan focus group and concludes: “Michigan Independents Cold to Alaska Governor”

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