With their record over the past few years, the Big Government Republicans in Washington do not merit the support of conservatives. They have busted the federal budget for generations to come with the prescription-drug benefit and the creation and expansion of other programs. They have brought forth a limitless flow of pork for the sole, immoral purpose of holding onto office. They have expanded government regulation into every aspect of our lives and refused to deal seriously with mounting domestic problems such as illegal immigration. They have spent more time seeking the favors of K Street lobbyists than listening to the conservatives who brought them to power. And they have sunk us into the very sort of nation-building war that candidate George W. Bush promised to avoid, while ignoring rising threats such as communist China and the oil-rich “new Castro,” Hugo Chavez.
Conservatives are as angry as I have seen them in my nearly five decades in politics. Right now, I would guess that 40 percent of conservatives are ambivalent about the November election or want the Republicans to lose. But a Republican loss of one or both houses of Congress would turn power over to the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Dare we risk such an outcome?
The answer is, we must take that chance. If Big Government Republicans behave so irresponsibly and betray the people who elected them, while we blindly, slavishly continue backing them, we establish that there is no price to pay for violating conservative principles. If we give in, we are forgetting the lesson that mothers teach their daughters: Why buy a cow when the milk is free?
And it may take a Republican defeat to bring about a complete change in the GOP leadership in Washington. Without such a change, real conservatives will never come to power. We are like the Jews who wandered the desert for 40 years until their old, corrupt leaders passed away; we will never reach the Promised Land with these guys in charge.
Yes, on the morning after the 2006 election, if liberal Democrats have won big, it will sting. Many in the media and in the GOP establishment will lay the blame on us for the Republican defeat. The party line will be that Republicans would have done better if they had been less conservative.
But the last 42 years have taught conservatives a simple lesson: If defeat comes because you stand firm for what you believe, and if you learn lessons that will help you win in the future, a defeat can hold the seeds of a hundred victories.
In 1964, conservatives created a national campaign for a somewhat reluctant Barry Goldwater, pushed his nomination through the Republican Convention—and suffered a disastrous defeat at the polls. Defeat came at the end of a campaign in which the media, at every opportunity, seconded liberals’ charges that conservatives were bigots, neo-Nazis, and reckless crazies who, given political power, might destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust.
We were as thoroughly defeated as anyone can be in American politics. Remember that, following a 49-state defeat for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972, Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress, and that, following another 49-state landslide defeat in 1984, they still controlled the House of Representatives. In 1965, conservatives had nothing—not even control of the Republican Party, whose establishment assigned us the full blame for the loss.
But we had planted the seeds.
Logistically, an estimated four million men and women had taken an active part in the Goldwater campaign. This was unprecedented in modern American politics. LBJ had only half as many workers, even though the Democratic voter pool was 50 percent larger.
In fundraising, the difference was even greater. The Goldwater campaign was the first popularly financed campaign in modern American history. The 1960 campaign, with between 40,000 and 50,000 individual contributors to Nixon and some 22,000 to Kennedy, was typical of the approach from previous years. Estimates of the number of contributors to Goldwater in 1964, combining federal, state, and local campaign groups, range from 650,000 to over a million. As you’d surmise from such an explosion in the number of contributors, individual and smaller contributors became hugely important. Only 28 percent of the Goldwater federal campaign contributions were for $500 or more, compared to 69 percent of the Democratic contributions.
We were learning how to mobilize grassroots Americans for door-to-door campaigning as well as raising money.
Meanwhile, we were learning how to get around the establishment media. We created our own channels of communication, using publications like National Review and Human Events, Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, and underground bestsellers like Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, and J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon. Those books sold millions of copies without the benefit of a major publisher or reviews in major publications.
A New York Times article of the day expressed amazement that anyone would pay attention to these books distributed by mail-order straight from the authors’ kitchens. What the Times failed to appreciate was the beginning of a communications revolution, of new and alternative media that allowed conservatives to fly under the radar of the so-called mainstream media. That revolution led to billions of political direct-mail messages from my company alone, and eventually to conservatives’ use of talk radio, cable news, and the Internet.
Another beneficial effect of the 1964 defeat was that it cleared a lot of dead wood out of the Republican Party. That made it easier for us to increase our influence on the GOP, utilizing new technology, more effective techniques, and fresh ideas. The Watergate scandal in 1974 eliminated more of the Republican officeholders who had stood in the way of creating a more broad-based party.
Defeat stings, but conservatives should keep this in mind: Without the disastrous congressional election of 1974, which dramatically weakened the party establishment, Ronald Reagan would never have been able to mount a nearly-successful challenge, two years later, to an incumbent president of his own party.
Defeat stings, but if Ford had beaten Jimmy Carter, it is highly unlikely that we would have elected some 35 conservatives to the House as part of the “Newt Gingrich class,” or that we would have beaten five powerful liberal Democratic senators with conservatives in 1980.
Without a President Carter, it is unlikely that Reagan would have been elected in 1980, or ever. The conservatives-can’t-win stigma, which largely disappeared with Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 landslides, would have continued indefinitely. Without Reagan’s policies, we would probably not have experienced the technological revolution of the past 20 years. But it’s possible that none of that would have mattered, because without Reagan’s policies, the Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire probably would have remained in place, even as internal pressures pushed the USSR toward war using its full arsenal of nuclear and biological weapons.
Defeat stings, but the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 led directly to the Republican takeover two years later. (Some conservatives foresaw this. One of my associates, at an election night party in 1992, celebrated Clinton’s victory by chanting, as a prediction for 1994, “Speaker Gingrich! Speaker Gingrich!”) Had the hapless President George H.W. Bush been reelected, it is a near certainty that the Democrats would have retained control of Congress in 1994. In fact, they would probably have gained congressional seats in 1994, then picked up the White House as well in 1996. Someone like Al Gore might have been in the White House on 9/11.
Sometimes a loss for the Republican Party is a gain for conservatives. Often, a little taste of liberal Democrats in power is enough to remind the voters what they don’t like about liberal Democrats and to focus the minds of Republicans on the principles that really matter. That’s why the conservative movement has grown fastest during those periods when things seemed darkest, such as during the Carter administration and the first two years of the Clinton White House.
Conservatives are, by nature, insurgents, and it’s hard to maintain an insurgency when your friends, or people you thought were your friends, are in power. A Republican loss this year could lead to a rebirth of the conservative movement, as a Third Force independent of any political party.
If Democrats win in November, it will seem like a dark time. But the darkest time comes before the dawn.
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Richard A. Viguerie, president of ConservativeHQ.com: The Conservative Headquarters, is author of the new book, Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.