Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

Currently: 55° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

POLITICAL MEMO:

Among themselves, conservatives start asking: What went wrong?

In the spirit of last week, we’re suspending our usual weekly memo fodder — no talk of polls or ground games, negative ads or candidate gaffes.

Instead, we take time out for conservative Big Think.

Rich Lowry, who’s editor of the conservative journal National Review, was in town last week. He addressed the Nevada Policy Research Institute, the Silver State’s own conservative think tank, during a fundraiser at, wait for it ... the Venetian.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Bill and Hillary Clinton had a never-ending colloquy on social programs with hundreds of politicos, activists, journalists and social theorists. They called it “The Conversation.” It was all high-minded, and a little pointless, as this was the time when Democrats were getting their electoral heads handed to them.

Conservatives seem to be entering a phase like this. Yes, Arizona Sen. John McCain has a good shot at becoming president and extending the remarkable run of Republican governance, and die-hards like Rush Limbaugh see no reason to adjust course off lower taxes, less regulation and waterboarding terrorists.

But many conservatives, Lowry included, see rocky shoals ahead.

Having fun with an old aphorism of Chairman Mao, he joked, “It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.”

“Conservatives are in trouble,” he told the crowd, serving up the rhetorical equivalent of a warm glass of bitters.

He cited executive branch incompetence, intellectual exhaustion and corruption of Congressional Republicans, snarking on Capitol Hill card games composed of Republican congressmen, corrupt lobbyists and prostitutes. (This was a little awkward, with Nevada’s own Gov. Jim Gibbons, who was given an award at the event, sitting in front. Photos of then-congressman Gibbons on a party cruise with defense contractor Warren Trepp are now part of Nevada lore.)

Lowry said if you ask the average Republican congressman what his agenda is, he’d give you a blank stare.

In part, this is because conservatives have won. Their goals, which were seeded in 1964 and came to fruition in the decades since, were to win the Cold War, cut taxes, deregulate the economy, cut crime, cut welfare. Check, check, check, check, check.

Now what?

The country has changed, and the challenges have changed. We’re slogging away in two expensive wars. Our health care system is broken. The deficit has ballooned. Global warming is happening, and the price of energy is rising.

Oh, and the financial system, which has benefited from more than two decades of deregulated steroids, has a bloated and sick liver.

That last is especially distressing for conservatives, Lowry said in a Sun interview after his talk. “It’s a total nightmare.” He doesn’t agree that deregulating the financial system has caused the crisis, but he said it doesn’t much matter, because that’s the story being told. (National Review has argued do-gooder efforts to prod banks to lend to poor people, as well as the Beltway shenanigans of giant lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, have caused the mess. It’s not a view shared by most economists.)

But all is not lost.

Lowry laid out some general principles about America and its history.

1) We are a commercial nation with a dynamic, open economy.

2) We are a middle class society.

3) We accrue national strength and project it.

4) We are “small d” democrats, meaning we rebel against elites.

Liberalism, Lowry said, threatens all of these, with its program of higher taxes, expensive energy, anything-goes social policies and shameful advocacy of retreating from American wars.

Lowry was talking to a largely wealthy crowd at an expensive dinner, but he said, “Working class voters are key to a conservative future.”

I asked him afterward what agenda would win those working class voters.

He looked at me sheepishly, as if to say, well, there’s the rub.

In truth, answers are being hashed out in the conservative version of “The Conversation.”

Suspension over. Next week, we return to raw politics.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

No trusted comments have been posted.