In the tumultuous history of postwar American conservatism, defeats have often contained the seeds of future victory. In 1954, the movement’s first national tribune, Senator Joseph McCarthy, was checkmated by the Eisenhower administration and then “condemned” by his Senate colleagues. But the episode, and the passions it aroused, led to the founding of National Review, the movement’s first serious political journal. Ten years later, the right’s next leader, Barry Goldwater, suffered one of the most lopsided losses in election history. Yet the “draft Goldwater” campaign secured control of the GOP for movement conservatives. In 1976, the insurgent challenge by Goldwater’s heir, Ronald Reagan, to incumbent president Gerald Ford was thwarted. But Reagan’s crusade positioned him to win the presidency four years later and initiate the conservative “revolution” that remade our politics over the next quarter-century. In each instance, crushing defeat gave the movement new strength and pushed it further along the route to ultimate victory. Today, the situation is much bleaker. After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that failed, in large part, because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal “elites.” That these precepts should have found their final, hapless defender in John McCain, who had resisted them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the GOP.
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