The election of 2008 was the first truly cataclysmic American election since 1932, when voters thoroughly repudiated a political party that had pretty much run things for 70 years. There is some room for debate whether the object of destruction in this cataclysm was the whole aristocratic conservative movement or merely the muddleheaded little man who became its embodiment, George W. Bush.
The case for the latter is that the Republicans themselves picked for their standard bearer the only candidate in a large and grim field who hated Bush and had opposed his worst domestic excesses, the giant tax cuts for the wealthy. But John McCain would mutate into an almost perfect facsimile of Bush, leaving admirers the wan hope that as president he could morph back into the centrist he seemed for a while to be.
Today, the question seems trifling and academic. American voters made it clear from the Iowa caucuses in January through Nov. 4 that they wanted no more of a political movement that took the country into two endless wars, disenchanted America's admirers around the world, humbled the mighty U.S. economy, raised greed to a civic principle, fattened the wealthy, beggared workers, plummeted millions into poverty and saddled everyone's children with a mortgage that will hit $12 trillion in the new president's first year. What did I leave out?
After another debacle that has left the party only a shadow in Congress, Republicans will have to settle among themselves whether Bush and Cheney were aberrant or the culmination of Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution. It's their task now, but let me offer the case for the latter.
Reagan's signature catchphrase, the premise of the movement, was that government was the problem, not the solution for anything. In whatever way you could diminish government you were serving humanity. Reagan went the other way but it remained a cherished ideal.
George W. Bush set out to prove that government was insignificant, that it required absolutely no know-how. After Bush left the governorship of Texas to go to the White House, the comedian and songster Kinky Friedman ran for governor on the platform, “How hard can it be?”
In Washington, Bush instituted the same approach that worked so feebly in Texas: Put pals and hacks in charge of everything, get out of the way and let things slide. The consequences were immediate and recurring. His administration tossed aside urgent warnings about hijackings and was caught unready when 19 terrorists with box cutters clambered on four airliners. He squelched intelligence work to take the country into a needless and destructive war. Government agencies that had been turned over to halfwits and screw-ups — after all, government doesn't really matter — could not cope with a couple of hurricanes. He abandoned the economic helm and left Wall Street and the entire financial industry to follow their basest impulse, which was unfettered greed. He privatized into the grip of crony businesses all kinds of government operations, including much of warfare, and got corruption on a massive scale. Except for strengthening the police state Bush really did get government out of the way, and not a single blessing came of it.
The other side of the modern conservative movement, the concentration of wealth, was manifested in the last debate of presidential race. The Republican attack on Barack Obama, joined by McCain and his vice presidential mate, was that the Democrat favored spreading the nation's wealth. Obama had actually used the line in his famous conversation with “Joe the Plumber.” It was Obama's somewhat inept explanation for allowing tax rates on high-earning people to return to their modest pre-Bush levels after 2010, as the law already requires, while reducing the taxes of other 95 percent of the people.
Spreading the wealth is the story of America, but we discovered in October 2008 that the other way is the real American way. Bush had presided over the greatest concentration of wealth since the Gilded Age and McCain, who almost alone among Republicans fought it in 2001, promised to keep at the job of concentration until it was finished.
The apostles of that creed were not silent. Locally, one of the most fascinating epistles of the election was a signed editorial by Warren Stephens, the otherwise civic-minded financier, that was published in the newspapers that his company owns. Stephens urged people to defeat Obama because he would restore the old tax rates on people with high incomes, which he acknowledged might include him. He recited statistics on the large share of federal income tax collections borne by his class. The truth is that he pays a smaller percentage of his income in taxes than does a file clerk in his office. Warren Buffett, who said his people had won the class war, was the first to make that comparison.
The philosophy that wealth should be consolidated rather than spread and that a docile government is good government is not dead, but it was not the message of this election.