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January 25, 2015

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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.

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