WASHINGTON — There is a second transition under way over which President-elect Barack Obama has no control — the transition of conservatives to minority status. How they do this will have a powerful impact on the new presidency.
If you doubt that, ask Bill Clinton. Clinton was elected in 1992 with only 43 percent of the vote while Republicans gained seats in the House. The right felt empowered to treat Clinton as a not fully legitimate minority president and moved into unrelenting opposition. Republicans took over Congress in 1994 and pushed the logic of their hostility to impeachment in 1998.
This time, conservatives can find no silver linings. Obama won the first Democratic majority in 32 years, and Democrats added seats in Congress. And conservatives can't blame John McCain for running as a moderate. He picked a right-wing running mate, abandoned some of his own unorthodox positions (notably on taxes), and ran a classic conservative attack campaign against the "socialist" Obama. None of it worked.
Note that I have been using the word "conservative," not "Republican." This is because the GOP is now wholly owned by the conservative movement. The new Democratic majority is built in part on voters who once thought of themselves as moderate Republicans but have abandoned the party in large numbers.
Because of these conversions, moderate Republicans in Congress have been knocked off, one by one, and are nearly extinct. This year's defeat of Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut is the most evocative symbol of moderate Republicanism's death.
In the meantime, today's Democrats are a more confident, disciplined and pragmatic lot than their 1993 counterparts, and this is one of Obama's big advantages over Clinton. Right-wing Democrats have been replaced by moderates with a greater sense of solidarity with the rest of the party, particularly on economic issues.
The early signals — notably the appointment of Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, an ally of incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, as the House liaison to the new administration — make clear that congressional Democrats are determined to govern with, not against, their new president.
But how conservatives resolve their differences will also matter to Obama's success. For now, the right is divided into ideological conservatives and dispositional conservatives.
The ideological conservatives hold to a faith linking small government and more tax-cutting to extreme social conservatism. That mix is increasingly incoherent and out of step with an electorate that is more diverse and more suburban than ever. Ideological conservatives talk obsessively about returning to the glory days of Ronald Reagan and sometimes drop Sarah Palin's name as a talisman.
Dispositional conservatives have leanings and affections, but not an ideology. They have had enough with rigid litmus tests, free-market bromides irrelevant to the current economic downturn, and an antigovernment rhetoric that bears no relationship to the large government that conservatives would inevitably preside over if they took power again.
The dispositional conservatives want to check government's influence on the economy but not eliminate it. They would call Obama to account, but wouldn't oppose him on everything. They accept that social problems, notably the growing ranks of those without health insurance, will require new action by government. They want solutions that are as unobtrusive as possible, but they do want solutions.
Think of the dispositional conservatives as the new moderates, and of Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota or Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as their potential champions.
The hero for dispositional conservatives is not Ronald Reagan but David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party. Cameron has rehabilitated what once seemed to be a dying outfit by pulling his party back toward a moderate brand of conservatism similar to that of the late Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Tomorrow's American conservatism will find its own Cameron.
For Obama, a victory by the ideological conservatives could make his life unpleasant — they will attack him on everything — but also allow him to brush the right aside as a pack of irrelevant naysayers.
The less ornery dispositional conservatives would allow Obama to breathe easier in the short run. But they pose a bigger threat for the long term because they would reconstitute the right as a plausible alternative government.
My bet: The ideological conservatives will hold sway for a while, but the dispositional conservatives will triumph eventually. As Margaret Thatcher noted in a different context: For the right, there is no alternative.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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