Election Day Was Bad for the GOP, Maybe Not for Conservatives

Conservatives must take stock of what went wrong—and what went right, GOP strategist Peter Roff writes.

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The inevitable postelection finger-pointing, an effort to affix blame for the Republican Party's across-the-board defeat in the 2008 elections, began even before the final ballot in the final race had even been counted.

November 4 was not a good day for the Republican Party, but it was not a bad day for conservatives. Few incumbents of a truly conservative hue went down to defeat. 

The input and energy of Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, who many saw as a future leading light in the party and the movement, will certainly be missed. But can the same be said about senators like North Carolina's Elizabeth Dole or of House members like Chris Shays of Connecticut? Nary a tear will be shed for them. Their defeats were political, not ideological.

What should be of equal concern is the undignified (even if expected) sniping directed by McCain and Palin campaign insiders, apparently at each other, through the vehicle of a hungry media beast. What each thinksof the other now is of little consequence. They lost. The slate is clean. McCain is not a conservative as the term is generally understood. He won the nomination despite his ideology. He was simply the last man standing at the end of the primary cycle, which was how it always was going to be decided. The blue ribbon, the brass ring, and the nomination always were going to the candidate who survived, not necessarily the most conservative, the most appealing, the best funded, or the best organized.

In fact, in a divided field in which no one candidate had a national base, there was never any guarantee that the primary winner was going to be all or any of those things. McCain was almost certainly none of them. The support he garnered came from two places: those who had always been with him and those who saw him, come November 4, as the only way to keep the Democrats from winning the White House. And, by the way, not every conservative felt that Obama was an unacceptable choice, and it is not at all clear that they should be purged from the movement as heretics.

Gov. Sarah Palin's impact is ultimately a probable wash. She provided energy and excitement to a ticket that badly needed it. She probably helped keep GOP moderate suburban women, who might have been seduced by the excitement and the history-making nature of Obama's campaign, from going over to the other side. On the other hand, her decidedly unpresidential performance in her interviews with the eternally perky Katie Couric of CBS reinforced the unflattering caricature her political foes created. And she likely turned off many independents attracted by McCain.

But all this is water under the bridge, where it should remain. The exit polls show that Obama built his own constituency during this campaign. His victory with 53 percent of the vote makes him only the fourth Democrat since Reconstruction to win the White House with the backing of a majority of the electorate rather than a plurality. There is ample evidence that the nation voted for Barack Obama, not just against President Bush or John McCain. And that matters for reasons that Republicans and conservatives ignore at their own peril.

Obama assembled a positive constituency that was attracted to what some journalists have taken to calling his "postpartisan" aura. The finger-pointing, even if it remains internal to the GOP, covers old ground that does not change the election result but smacks of the negativity the voters have just rejected. And it does not produce a very healthy mindset from which to rebuild the party or the movement. For conservatives, the imperative to oppose efforts to suborn issues related to first principles remains; it is equally imperative that conservatives listen for new ideas and new approaches that they can support.

One prominent Democrat, a fellow who once ran a national campaign, told me that the people voted for the person, not the party. If Obama tacks to the left, as leader of what the ballot initiative results and other evidence tells us is still a right-of-center country, the voters will punish him at the next election. If he governs, or even gives the appearance of governing, from the center, voters will hear the noise on the right as a merely a distraction. And conservatives will miss it all because they are too busy reloading for the next game of "Let's All Have a Circular Firing Squad."