Have Conservatives Won?

HAVE CONSERVATIVES WON?….Brad DeLong has one analytical quarrel with Rick Perlstein’s “extraordinarily good” Before the Storm:

Goldwaterism certainly did ? in the long run ? unmake Republican Party commitment to the New Deal Consensus. But in the short run Goldwaterism had other consequences: the damage it did to Republican congressional power were the only things that made the Great Society possible: the Johnson-era expansions of the social insurance state and the Nixon and post-Nixon-era expansions of the regulatory state were possible only on congressional foundations that had been created by Goldwater’s Samson act directed against the Republican establishment.

To make possible the Great Society ? and then to cheer when Ronald Reagan rolls back 10% of it ? Goldwaterism was the greatest own-goal and act of political delusion by conservatives in the twentieth century.

As it happens, I don’t share Brad’s view that this is a defect of the book, primarily because I think Before the Storm was meant to be descriptive, not analytic. But on the first-order point, Brad is absolutely right.

The fact is that Goldwaterism, Reaganism, and Bushism to the contrary, liberals have basically won the big war of the past 40 years. With the exception of the conservative victory (so far) on taxes, conservatives have succeeded in rolling back only a tiny portion of the liberal victories of the post-World War II era. Social Security is bigger than ever, Medicare has just been expanded, anti-discrimination laws still rule the land, environmental laws have cleaned up the country, and to prevent themselves from being voted out of office en masse Republicans have to pretend that they enthusiastically support all this stuff even while they’re trying to quietly tear it down in the background.

Make no mistake: they have succeeded in tearing some of it down, and they’re continuing that effort. But 40 years ago Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan could speak plainly about their dislike of Social Security, while today George Bush has to pretend to be the second coming of FDR before he proposes his plans to subtly undo FDR’s legacy. If conservatives have really won the national debate, why is it that they so carefully avoid saying things that they talked about openly a mere four decades ago?

POSTSCRIPT: And go buy the book, OK? At only 12 bucks it’s a steal.