It’s time for some blunt talk among conservatives. The fact is that we’re losing the country, and in one election after another, we continue to seek out a conservative savior who will put things right. The problems with this approach are extensive, inasmuch as we assume we can find one person who will so perfectly embody conservatism that we can stop worrying about the direction of the country. It may be understandable, given the dire condition of our economy, the wreckage of our culture, and the endless parade of disappointments to which we conservatives have been witness, but I’ve begun to think it’s largely our own fault. We want to go on about our lives and mostly leave the running of the country to some honorable man or woman who will do what is right without further involvement from us, but that’s simply not going to happen. The truth is that we conservatives have become too obsessed with a savior and too impatient to build the kind of movement that would make one possible but ultimately unnecessary. If you think I’m overstating the attachment among conservatives to this notion, I offer into evidence the GOP’s own 2012 savior trap.
Consider Michelle Bachmann’s entry into the 2011 primary scene. Popular with some of the Tea Party wing, for a time, she did well, but then she made a few verbal missteps just as Rick Perry entered the scene. In a matter of days, Bachmann plummeted in the polls, and Perry’s elevator began rising toward the top. While she stuck around quite a long while, she never recovered from that point forward. It didn’t take long, perhaps the span of a month or so, and Perry stumbled badly in a couple of debates, and his numbers tanked badly. Sensing the end, and realizing Perry was not their savior after all, conservatives held a clearance sale and abandoned him, leaving him to spend the next couple of months in a sliding finale ending with his return to Texas and his endorsement of Newt Gingrich. Rick Perry would not be the conservatives’ savior any more than Bachmann had been.
At about this time, both Chris Christie(who broke Ann Coulter’s heart) and Sarah Palin(who broke many more, mine included) announced in rapid succession that they would not join the fray. Two more potential conservative saviors (although calling Christie a “conservative” is admittedly a stretch) went by the wayside as Perry’s meteoric rise was matched only by his apocalyptic fall from polling grace. The Texan didn’t fulfill conservatives’ search for a savior, so the quest moved on to its next failure.
Enter Herman Cain. Remember him and his “9-9-9?” Who could possibly forget? I enjoyed Cain’s plain-spoken rhetoric, and his ability to speak in sensible albeit general terms to a set of issues that were important to conservatives across the board. Then something happened, and some allegations were brought forward by all the usual suspects, and before he could shout “9-9-9” one more time, Herman Cain was gone, knocked out from a rapidly rising lead by the false hope that he could be the next conservative savior. He was not.
Then came the circumstance of Newt Gingrich’s double rise and double-dip. He came forward and began to create momentum the first time as Herman Cain began to falter. The two shared a stage at the Woodlands near Houston for a one-on-one debate, and the one thing it made plain was that Cain was out of his depth, nice man though he seemed to be. Gingrich owned the stage in terms of thoughtful policy ideas, and his command of the issues outgunned Mr. Cain substantially. Suddenly, conservatives who had dismissed him earlier on in the season began to take note. He was making the case, and he was making it well, and many people dreamed happily of Gingrich facing Obama in debates. Gingrich came under hammering attacks in early December.
Then there was the first brief double love-affair with Rick Santorum, who seemed to attract social conservatives who felt put-off by some things in the former Speaker’s personal history, and the two dueled back and forth, but Gingrich managed to come back on top. By the middle of January of 2012, with the South Carolina primary victory, Gingrich had debate performances that put him clearly atop the heap. Then came the accusations about him, and one flat debate performance, and though he battled back and forth with Mitt Romney, Florida’s primary was won by the former Massachusetts Governor. Santorum also managed to capitalize on Gingrich’s fall, but it was going to be a two-horse race, and neither of them would be Newt Gingrich. Conservatives dismounted and went on to find their next ride.
After Gingrich, Santorum made a valiant effort, trying all he could to upset the Romney apple-cart, but by then, too many conservatives had hopped from one horse to the next, and Santorum just wasn’t going to do. Conservatives were simply too deeply divided, and thus conquered, so that in the end, Santorum too went down when the money wouldn’t come and the Romney machine gathered steam. The last conservative savior then faltered and went by the wayside, or so we thought.
At long last came Mitt Romney, and while some hoped for something dramatic at the convention, most had by now accepted the fate of the GOP: The Republican party would put Mitt Romney forward to face Barack Obama and pretend to themselves that he had been a conservative all along. We all know how that came out, and there’s no point in re-hashing it, save to say that we conservatives permitted ourselves to go off in search of a savior who never arrived. By the morning of November 7th, we all knew the miserable failure, but we weren’t finished quite yet.
Three months later, we have now the spectacle of Sean Hannity posing the question to Dr. Benjamin Carson about the possibility of his presidential ambitions. As ever, and hot on the trail of anybody who might save us, somehow, a number of conservatives departed on the path toward seeking a Carson candidacy. As I detailed earlier, there are any number of reasons to be a bit more cautious about how we will throw our political support around. Dr. Carson may be a skilled physician, and he may run an excellent foundation, but that’s hardly a reason to consider him for the presidency, particularly in lieu of more thorough examination.
So it is that conservatives left 2012 behind, and with it, an understanding of the causes of their recent disappointments. Already, there is a slate of possible or potential candidates for 2016, but while conservatives run headlong into another round of the savior trap, Obama and his cronies are doing real damage to the country. Conservatives seem fixated on the notion that they can somehow elevate one person to the presidency who will undo all of Obama’s damage, but I must insist that this is not the case. Absent a conservative majority in the House and Senate, Obama’s will be done, come Hell or high water. As one examines the array of Republicans already being batted around as potential presidential candidates in 2016, one can see the same scenario arising, and it ought to jog some conservative memories of 2011-12, and with them, some caution.
I’m not suggesting that conservatives should ignore 2016, but the truth is that we have a good deal of work to do before we get on to that campaign. Besides, if conservatives are to find such a leader, it will likely come in the heat of the battle of the next two years, when we will begin to form a sense of who is able and willing to lead a conservative movement. In 2010, one conservative voice lent to the national discourse in a significant way, a voice that had a strong influence over the outcome, helping conservatives send many new members to the House. She stayed out of the nomination fight in 2012, but without her leadership in 2010, making the campaign stops, and pressing the issues with voters, I doubt we would have had the beltway-blasting success of taking back the House.
As conservatives begin again to seek out another savior, I wonder how many of them are paying attention to the lady who had been in front of them all along. Let us be clear about how important Sarah Palin’s influence had been in that election season, particularly before we go off in search of another would-be savior. Whether she will seek the presidency at some point in the future is anybody’s guess, but I would keep an eye on Wasilla, if not for a candidacy, then at least for a bold leader who helped us to retake the House in 2010. In 2012, voters agreed with her endorsements in nearly seventy percent of those races in which she offered one, suggesting that if somebody in the greater universe that is conservatism understands the electorate, it may well be Governor Palin. More importantly, however, she has exhibited the ability to lead on issues and rouse the base while making a strong stand in defense of the republic.
Whomever we may choose to carry our banner in 2016, I hope we are a good deal more persistent than we had been in 2011-2012, a season in which conservatives leaped from one horse to the next with little hesitation. It’s more important than ever to identify a candidate who can lead, but leadership will be about more than great speeches or rousing debate performances. A goodly portion of our attention must be aimed at identifying those who will step up to lead now, as we embark on four more years of the Obama agenda. Who will rise to oppose him? Who will push hard in the midterms of 2014? Who will rally conservatives? Who will be able to put a shattered party together again, if it can be put together again at all? With whom will conservatives stand in unwavering support? These questions may well be answered in the next two or three years if we have the discernment to recognize it.
It is time that conservatives re-think this entire savior mentality. No fruit was borne by that tree in 2012, and I doubt the outcome will be different in 2016 if that is our sole focus. We must build conservatism not by electing a President first, and then hoping wistfully to achieve success, but instead by building a movement that is positioned to elect a President. Short-cutting our way to electoral victory cannot and will not work, as evidenced by the miserable results of 2012. When one places the question in this context, it is true that it exposes the daunting enormity of the task before us, but at least it offers an honest view of the fight we have ahead if we are to salvage the republic. Wild-eyed but temporary enthusiasm for one candidate or another will not rescue the country, but building a movement can. At long last, we must stop seeking the one person who alone can save the country, recognizing instead that an able leader can only arise when by our own tireless efforts, we’ve laid the groundwork and made the country capable of salvation.