R.I.P. MOVEMENT CONSERVATISM, 1964-2004….I’m going to begin my navel gazing early. A couple of days from now everyone will be musing about what the election results “really mean,” and I’d like to go on record right now as saying, “not much.” (This assumes that the election is close, of course ? if it’s a landslide, then all bets are off.)

Before the outraged comments start flowing in, here’s what I mean. Obviously it matters a lot in objective terms whether George Bush gets 49% of the vote or 51%, but in terms of the mood of the country at this moment in time it doesn’t mean a thing. Even the difference between 48% and 52% doesn’t really mean much in the short term.

However, looking at the slightly longer term, I think this election does have a larger meaning: it marks the beginning of the end for movement conservatism. This election and the previous one demonstrate this pretty vividly. In 2000, George Bush eked out a razor-thin victory thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the electoral college, but to do even that well he had to run as the squishiest sort of moderate conservative. Four years later he’s dropped the mask and is running as an honest-to-God Reagan conservative ? but win or lose, it’s going to be a squeaker again despite having the most favorable environment imaginable for a conservative tough guy. If movement conservatives can’t pull down big numbers for their guy this year, then they just can’t do it.

There are also two big demographic trends working against the movement folks:

  • They’re losing ground on social issues. As older generations die off and younger ones take their place, it’s getting harder and harder to get people excited about the usual movement warhorses of gays, abortion, prayer, and so forth. This trend is probably unstoppable.

  • Within a few years ? like it or not ? we’re going to have to fix Social Security and Medicare. And the political reality ? like it or not ? is that both these programs are going to be fully funded, not cut in any substantial way. And that in turn ? like it or not ? means that taxes are going to go up.

    This is going to spell the end of the Grover Norquist/Stephen Moore tax jihadist wing of the conservative movement. Electoral self preservation will force both Democrats and Republicans to agree to raise taxes fairly sharply in order to cover the Bush deficit and properly fund old age entitlements, and when that finally happens tax cuts will pretty much disappear as a killer partisan issue.

Movement conservatism had a good run, and in Ronald Reagan they reached their high point. But they haven’t had a winning candidate for 20 years, and even with 9/11 as a tailwind they won’t be able to manage a convincing victory this year ? and most likely will go down to outright defeat. In another decade, they’ll be a footnote to history.