By the day it grows harder to maintain the scrupulous belief that Senator McCain can still win the election. I am no more persuaded by polls than I was before, but it's hard to ignore each new sign that the McCain campaign is in a state of collapse. Today, the news was that McCain staffers, albeit anonymously, were denouncing Governor Palin as a "diva" who had "gone rogue" in refusing to follow the talking points foisted on her by the McCain people and continuing to discuss the question of her expenses in clothing and hair styling. Yesterday, pundit David Frum warned that McCain and Palin could drag the entire Republican party down in flames with them. He quotes a Congressman to the effect that no Republican seat in the country is safe now. Frum is a conservative, but he believes that McCain made a fatal mistake in nominating a running mate who energizes the rabid base while alienating moderates and independents.
Maggie Gallagher, by contrast, still thinks that Palin is probably the best thing that's happened to the McCain campaign. She lists Frum as one of several conservative writers who have condemned Palin, but adds that their criticisms have left her cold. She admires the Alaskan and thinks that Palin should be counted as an overachiever because of how far she's gotten while having those five kids. Since Gallagher often writes as if having kids is a woman's highest possible calling, I wonder whether the political achievements really even count much in her estimate. In any event, she "gently suggest[s]" that "the public intellectuals' discontent with Gov. Palin has less to do with who she is than with the contemporary crisis in conservatism brought about by allegiance to George Bush"
That's a cryptic statement, and it isn't clarified by Gallagher's closer: "It is time - more than past - for a deep rethinking of the conservative movement in America. But attacks by conservative pundits on Sarah Palin represent more of a symptom than a step forward."
Maybe conservatives themselves understand a subtext here. I don't know Gallagher to have been a great critic of Bush, but she seems to think he has something to do with the troubles in the conservative movement. Perhaps she worries that the pundits and "public intellectuals" are taking their frustrations with Bush out on Palin because she shares some superficial similarities -- e.g., inarticulacy, religious credulity, plain dullness? If so, how does Palin differ from Bush, and does she differ enough to justify fantasies of a presidential run in 2012, even if McCain wins? And should she become the standard bearer of a post-McCain GOP, especially with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee lurking on the sidelines, ready to crow, "I told you so" as soon as McCain goes down?
The confusion that seems to reign in Republican circles may be a sign that there can be no step forward. The 2008 election may mark the end of the "conservative movement" that began with the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, and with it the end of the "movement conservatives," a breed of political animal that over time, some writers claim, lost touch with the philosophical essence of conservatism. "Movement conservatism" (a term I borrow from The American Conservative magazine) is ideological when philosophical conservatism abhors ideology. It is insistently optimistic in the Ronald Reagan mode when conservatism normally tends toward skepticism (at least toward human ventures) to the point of pessimism. There will always be conservatives whenever innovation is subject to debate, but unless McCain pulls a Harry Truman, conservatism may need to find new forms of expression apart from the old movement. Even if McCain wins, the prospect of unorthodox "maverick" government may still force decisive choices upon conservatives, if it doesn't discredit "conservatism" as a political label for generations to come.