Last night I happened to catch a very interesting discussion between David Frum and Robert Schrum on C-Span. The event took place at Georgetown, but I wasn't able to attend, so I'm glad I caught it on the television. The topic was the future of liberalism and conservatism in American politics.
Schrum (representing the liberal view) only wanted to talk about the election - and it's not surprising why. This is an exciting time for liberals, with the promised land of complete control of the Federal government within reach. Still, it was noteworthy that he didn't have a thing to say about the future of liberalism, per se.
Frum was far more thoughtful and reflective, as one might expect from someone whose party is about to be shown the door. He realizes that there will be a time wandering in the wilderness, and he showed that he will be a major voice in re-thinking the Republican brand over the next 4-8 years (or more). There will be a terrible internecine battle between the libertarians and the social conservatives, but it's possible that 4-8 years (or more) of an activist liberal government will be enough to cause them to make up and play nice (alas!).
What struck me about this is that Frum is aware, and already has been working, on an intellectual and policy re-definition of conservatism. Yet, while the liberals have been wandering in their own wilderness for many years, I don't detect that there has been anything like such a reconsideration. It's not clear that they have developed any considerable or new governing philosophy other than "change" and "we are not George W. Bush." Now, it's possible that Obama will seek to move America in the direction of a post-political future like that we are seeing among elites in Europe. That is clearly the hope of many in the professoriate and elite circles who are in the throes of near-ecstasy over an Obama presidency. Such a course, I think, would doom Obama's presidency, and I think he's smart enough to know it. He'll give encouragement to this crowd in the way that Republican presidents since Reagan have appeared on videoscreen at pro-life rallies. What seems more likely is that Obama will be a conventional Democrat - doling out government favors to every group of his coalition that asks - trying to keep up with the spending proposals of Congress. However, he's also clearly smart enough to know that this course would be folly, given the massive new indebtedness of the government wrought by our financial crisis, and the dwindling tax receipts that will be evident next April 15 (the deductions from stock losses will be staggering). That course will almost ensure that he will preside over a declining America whose indebtedness and hyper-inflationary monetary policies will make us resemble a third world nation.
Obama is going to win this election, and decisively, mainly because he is NotBush. Democrats have not used very well their time in the wilderness. For all of the youthful enthusiasm of Obama's supporters, I don't see any comparable young liberal David Frums or Rod Drehers or Ross Douthats or Reihan Salams (actually, looking at Frum and Schrum sitting next to each other, I was struck that it appeared to be an inversion of a McCain-Obama debate, with a youthful, thoughtful conservative and an old, hackneyed liberal). It's virtually assured that an Obama administration will be filled with many of the usual suspects. In their joy they will be tempted to overlook the fact that Obama didn't win so much as the Republicans lost, and deservedly (I still think that Obama would have won even without the financial crisis, but it would have been a narrow win, not the possible electoral college landslide he may achieve). The great temptation of the Democrats will be to become Santa Claus to every oppressed and alienated group that comes asking. Their great task - should they accept the mission - is to creatively and thoughtfully address the great middle class anxieties of the nation, contemplate ways to provide some degree of economic and social stability to the Joe the Plumbers of the world, and thus resist every worst instinct they have to disdain and re-educate the parochial views of our unprogressed middle class whose anxieties and support will make Obama president, but will not necessarily keep him there. If they can do that, the Republicans will wander in the wilderness for a very long time. I'm just not sure the Democrats will be that smart, and able to resist their worst instincts. If not, we will witness one of the greatest Pyhrric victories ever seen in just under two weeks' time.