BOSTON — One of the secrets of conservative America is how often it has welcomed Republican defeats. In 1976, many conservatives saw the trouncing of the moderate Gerald Ford as a way of clearing the path for the ideologically pure Ronald Reagan in 1980. In November 1992, George H.W. Bush's defeat provoked celebrations not just in Little Rock, where the Clintonites danced around to Fleetwood Mac, but also in some corners of conservative America.
"Oh yeah, man, it was fabulous," recalled Tom DeLay, the hard-line congressman from Sugar Land, Texas, who had feared another "four years of misery" fighting the urge to cross his party's too-liberal leader. At the Heritage Foundation, a group of right-wingers called the Third Generation conducted a bizarre rite involving a plastic head of the deposed president on a platter decorated with blood-red crepe paper.
There is no chance that Republicans would welcome the son's defeat in the same way they rejoiced at the father's. George W. is much more conservative than George H.W., and he has gone out of his way to throw red meat to each faction of the right: tax cuts for the anti-government conservatives, opposition to gay marriage and abortion for the social conservatives and the invasion of Iraq for the neoconservatives. Still, there are five good reasons why, in a few years, some on the right might look on a John Kerry victory as a blessing in disguise.
First, President Bush hasn't been as conservative as some would like. Small-government types fume that he has increased discretionary government spending faster than Bill Clinton. Buchananite paleoconservatives, libertarians and Nelson Rockefeller-style internationalists are all furious -- for their very different reasons -- about Bush's "war of choice" in Iraq. Even some neocons are irritated by his conduct of that war -- particularly his failure to supply enough troops to make the whole enterprise work.
The second reason conservatives might cheer a Bush defeat is to achieve a foreign policy victory. The Bush foreign policy team hardly lacks experience, but its reputation has been tainted -- by infighting, by bungling in Iraq and by the rows with Europe. For better or worse, many conservatives may conclude that Kerry, who has accepted most of the main tenets of Bush's policy of preemption, stands a better chance than Bush of increasing international involvement in Iraq, of winning support for Washington's general war on terror and even of forcing reform at the United Nations. After all, could Jacques, Gerhard and the rest of those limp-wristed continentals say no to a man who speaks fluent French and German and has just rid the world of the Toxic Texan?
The third reason for the right to celebrate a Bush loss comes in one simple word: gridlock. Gridlock is a godsend to some conservatives -- it's a proven way to stop government spending. A Kerry administration is much more likely to be gridlocked than a second Bush administration because the Republicans look sure to hang on to the House and have a better-than-even chance of keeping control of the Senate.
The fourth reason has to do with regeneration. Some conservatives think the Republican Party -- and the wider conservative movement -- needs to rediscover its identity. Is it a "small government" party, or does "big government conservatism" make sense? Is it the party of big business or of free markets? Under Bush, Western anti-government conservatives have generally lost ground to Southern social conservatives, and pragmatic internationalists have been outmaneuvered by neoconservative idealists. A period of bloodletting might help, returning a stronger party to the fray.
And that is the fifth reason why a few conservatives might welcome a November Bush-bashing: the certain belief that they will be back, better than ever, in 2008. The conservative movement has an impressive record of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Ford's demise indeed helped to power the Reagan landslide; "Poppy" Bush's defeat set up the Gingrich revolution. In four years, many conservatives believe, President Kerry could limp to destruction at the hands of somebody like Colorado Gov. Bill Owens.
When the British electorate buried President Bush's hero, Winston Churchill, and his Conservative Party, Lady Churchill stoically suggested the "blessing in disguise" idea to her husband. He replied that the disguise seemed pretty effective. Yet the next few years vindicated Lady Churchill's judgment. The Labor Party, working with Harry S. Truman, put into practice the anti-communist containment policies that Churchill had championed. So in 1951, the Conservative Party could return to office with an important piece of its agenda already in place and in a far fitter state than it had been six years earlier. It held office for the next 13 years.