[T]he conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.
One quick question: Why is it that everyone assumes political movements need intellectual renewal to be successful? After John Kerry's defeat, the general consensus was, If the Democrats can't beat a weak incumbent like Bush they're doomed as a political party! Remember how the end was nigh for Democrats in January of 2005? Yet two years later they scored big in the mid-terms and then two years after that expanded their congressional majorities while recapturing the White House.
Did liberalism undergo an intense intellectual renewal between 2004 and 2006? I don't think so. Instead--the other side presided over a series of intensely bad events.
Look, I don't mean to sound like a Marxist determinist here, but let's strip away, for a moment, the more complicated questions of blame and look at the bare facts. After George W. Bush took office:
* Lower Manhattan was devastated in the 9/11 attacks
* America launched two wars, which were conducted with varying levels of success and failure
* New Orleans was destroyed
* Gas prices rose by more than 200 percent
* Home prices fell by something like 40 percent (in some areas)
You don't need intellectual renewal to run against that! (Again, it isn't fair to blame President Bush for all of these events; and he did have some successes. But we're talking about crude political matters here.)
Yet even with that litany of failures, John McCain was still leading Barack Obama until Lehman Brothers collapsed in mid-September, triggering an enormous financial crisis which destroyed a goodly portion of voters' personal wealth. (Funny how McCain's campaign--which was highly imperfect!--went from being perceived as brilliantly obsessed with tactics before the Lehman collapse to "feckless" afterwards.)
In sum, it would be nice for conservatism to find some intellectual energy in the coming months. But that is hardly a precondition for electoral success.
If President Obama proves to be as callow, arrogant, and counter-productively impulsive as President Bush was--and there is much evidence to suggest he will--then there's a good chance that Republicans will regain their political potency irrespective of the state of conservative thought.
On the other hand, even if conservatism's Bright Young Things rescue the movement's hearts and minds from the Bad Old Guys, but the economy quickly recovers, Iraq and Afghanistan stabilize, and the international scene remains stable--then it won't make a bit of difference. Obama and the Democrats will remain politically dominant.