I have lots of conservative friends and often speak to Republican-leaning groups. I have something surprising to report: they're pretty cheerful. They're well aware that President Bush's numbers are terrible--and that Al Gore got an Academy Award. Yet my fellow conservatives and Republicans are pretty upbeat. After a rough 2006, conservative magazines are seeing an uptick in subscription renewals, right-wing websites are getting more hits, and Republican and conservative groups here at Harvard (yes, Harvard!) seem invigorated. What's going on? Here are five reasons conservatives and Republicans might have some cause for their cheer.
1. The surge. Nothing was more demoralizing last year to supporters of the war than the sense that Bush was refusing to alter course out of misguided loyalty to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General George Casey. The ouster of Rumsfeld and Casey and the announcement of a new strategy backed up by additional troops and a new commander, General David Petraeus, gave hope to those who still think success is possible in Iraq--which, polls show, is still a healthy majority of Republicans.
2. Congress. The bad news of November 2006 was that the Republicans lost their majorities on Capitol Hill. The good news is that the Democrats are now in control. It's difficult to be in charge of Congress, especially when your grass roots are pushing you to do something about the war, and it's hard to do anything without seeming to undercut the troops or denying Petraeus a chance to succeed. Mitch McConnell's performance as Senate Republican leader has also--for the first time in a long while--given Republicans a congressional leader worth rooting for as he outmaneuvers the Democrats in their efforts to put Congress on record against Bush's Iraq policy.
3. The 2008 Democratic field. Hillary Clinton, as Hollywood chieftain David Geffen has famously pointed out, looks beatable in a general election. Barack Obama is impressive but Republicans find it hard to believe he'll be our next President. The second time doesn't seem to be the charm for John Edwards. And Al Gore, who could be the nominee, still isn't a natural pol. There are serious Democrats who have won in red or purple states: former Governors Mark Warner of Virginia and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. But the first three have dropped out of the presidential race, and Richardson is polling at 2% and looks unlikely to make it into the top tier. Hillary is the least left-wing of the leading Democratic candidates. To a Republican, that says it all.
4. The 2008 Republican field. Republicans look likely to nominate one from a trio of "metro Republicans," to use the term applied to Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney by Noemie Emery in the Weekly Standard. Emery writes, "None hails from the South, none looks or sounds country, none is conspicuous for traditional piety ... [but] each is a strong conservative on many key issues, while having a dissident streak on a few. Each has a way of presenting conservative views that centrists don't find threatening, and projecting fairly traditional values in a language that secular voters don't fear." Each has shown an ability to get independent and even Democratic votes. Democrats won the national vote in 2006 by about 8 points. Republican front runner Giuliani now beats Democratic front runner Clinton in polls by about that margin.
5. Fresh ideas. I don't sense that conservatism is exhausted. There's new thinking on domestic policy that could serve as the basis of an interesting agenda for the G.O.P. nominee. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam explain in their forthcoming book on "Sam's Club Republicans" how the G.O.P. can do a better job of responding to the anxieties of working and middle-class Americans in areas like tax policy and health insurance, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Yuval Levin suggests a complementary policy agenda--"Putting Parents First," he calls it--aimed at those same swing voters. In foreign policy, the U.S. will still be at war in 2008--and despite Bush's travails, Republicans still seem likely to be able to claim to be the party of American strength.
It's worth remembering that off-year elections often aren't predictors of the outcome of the next presidential one. The 1994 Republican off-year sweep was followed by Bill Clinton's easy 1996 victory over Bob Dole. The 1986 Democratic take-back of the Senate and the 1987 Iran-contra scandal didn't prevent then Vice President George H.W. Bush from dismantling Michael Dukakis in 1988. 2006 was a bad year for the G.O.P. 2008 may not be.