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populist libertatrianismThe only “practical” panel I went to at the APSA [the American Political Science Association meeting] was one on the future of the Republican party. Carl Scott has already talked about it a bit. It really was true that our friend Yuval Levin was the only participant who addressed the actual issues in a reasonable and engaging way. When asked about “climate change,” for example, he said the Republicans shouldn’t deny it or demagogically mock the real scientists who have evidence that there are anthropogenic sources of “global warning.” The truth is that it is a long-term threat, but it’s not the most pressing issue facing the country right now. Prudent measures should be taken, but prudence includes chilling out the alarmists. We don’t want to forget that it’s the natural condition of the climate to change, and that our concern for the “environment” should remain anthropocentric and not degenerate into control-freakism. It’s the height of arrogance to really believe that the future of human life — by which we should mean each particular person’s life — is in our hands. The future of human liberty is more our responsibility.

One immediate concern is the November election. Bill Kristol was very helpful in satisfying our desire to discover historical patterns that would allow us to make predictions, while adding, very reasonably, that all such evidence typically cuts in both directions. Beyond that, I don’t remember much of what Bill said, and so the following patternizing should not be blamed on him.

The 2014 election will occur in the middle of the second term of an unpopular president. Not only that, it’s six years after a big Democratic victory. So it’s reasonable to expect a “wave” Republican sweep in the Senate races, something like the Democratic victory of 2006. The singular characteristic of a wave election is that all the close races seem to break in one direction, and the Republicans are within the margin of error of winning 54 seats right now.

BUT the Republicans already had a “wave” anti-Obama sweep in 2010, just as they had a historic anti-Clinton takeover in 1994. That means that this election may well be like 1998 — a Republican disappointment where many defeats are snatched out of the jaws of victory.

The energy level for the Republicans this year might be more like 1998 than 2010. There are several reasons for that: One often noted is the Republicans seem to be “playing out the clock” instead of aggressively campaigning on hot-button issues. They don’t have, despite the best efforts of Paul Ryan, an agenda. Establishment calculation is clamping down on tea-party enthusiasm.

But 2014, you say, is nothing like 1998!  The Republicans mistakenly assumed voters would privilege Bill Clinton’s personal immorality and lying to save his a** over his presidential competence–over the peace and prosperity they were enjoying.  Obama is personally moral but a real tyrant who hasn’t given us either peace or prosperity!

election 2012Well, the playing-out-the-clock strategy reminds us of not only of 1998 but of 2012. Mitt Romney astounded many astute analysts by seeming to follow this strategy although he was, according to all the available studies, actually behind. But so many Republican enthusiasts, such as Paul Rahe and even our Flagg Taylor, just didn’t believe those studies, thinking that they didn’t properly account for the turnout surge from key groups that would sweep Mr. Romney into office. Mitt Romney’s campaign apparently didn’t believe them either. He was pretty shocked when it turned out he was trounced. The point of all this: There was a fair amount of core Republican energy in 2012 centered on the conviction that Mr. Obama is so self-evidently terrible for the economy and America.

So far, I’m not convinced Republicans are doing that well in centering the 2014 campaign on anti-Obama energy. One reason, of course, is the president isn’t running. Another is that the Democrats are succeeding in conducting their own fairly issueless campaign, one that in some cases is fairly successfully detaching Senate candidates from the presidential unpopularity (Georgia?). Their focus is on what those evil Republican oligarchic fundamentalist rednecks (mainly the last two) will do when they get in. It isn’t on defending the good the president has done.

I’m not going to review what Pete Spiliakos and Mr. Levin (and Joel Kotkin) have said about the Republicans having to develop a somewhat populist economic message that’s aimed at the real issue of middle-class insecurity and combined with a social-cultural message about the dignity of ordinary relational life. It remains not enough to say that Obama stinks when it comes to the economy or is tyrannically pushing us toward soft despotism. This development is not going to occur before November.

In 2010, voters were angered by and thought they could stop ObamaCare. Now, arguably, many more think it’s a “done deal,” partly because, as Mr. Spiliakos has said, Republicans don’t bother to offer–in campaign mode–a credible alternative to it.  So anti-Obamacare energy had not disappeared, but certainly dissipated.

On foreign policy: Republicans, at their most effective, go with the ”brand” that President Obama is a tyrant at home and a wimp in relation to other countries. The Democrats campaigned with great success against George W. Bush’s foreign-policy cluelessness in 2006. But it’s not so easy for the Republicans now. For one thing, it’s natural to want to support the president in whatever efforts he makes to confront Putin or ISIS. For another, the Republicans are stuck with the “crying wolf” problem that comes with allegedly exaggerating prior threats to our national security. They’re also stuck with Rand Paul and his chunk of the Republican coalition. President Obama continues to do well in blaming President Bush for the mess in Iraq, and it’s hard for Americans to get psyched up about Ukraine. Electing a Republican Senate won’t firm up the president’s resolve, in any case.

My conclusion: If I had to predict, the election of 2014 will be less conclusive than the Republicans would hope, given the president’s unpopularity. That’s disappointing, of course, especially because they have fewer really lame candidates than they’ve had in recent elections. Control of the Senate may depend on the runoff in Louisiana.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2014 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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