LESS THAN two years ago, as Barack Obama moved into the White House, the conservative movement in the United States was in disarray, at war with itself, uncertain about its future, and badly damaged by events it did not foresee and could not explain. An unpopular war in Iraq and a financial crisis coming to a head in the middle of the presidential campaign seemed to discredit two foundational pillars of postwar conservatism: a nationalistic foreign policy and a reliance on free markets to spur economic growth. Naturally, there were those eager to overinterpret the results of the 2008 election, declaring the death of conservatism as an influential movement in American politics. George Packer wrote in the New Yorker, E. J. Dionne in the Washington Post, and Sam Tanenhaus in the New Republic (and later in a full-length book) that the conservative era that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 had now come to an end with the failed administration of George W. Bush. All three writers, and many others too, argued that Obama’s victory marked the beginning of a new liberal era in American politics.
Today, only eighteen months or so into this new age, all the doom-and-gloom forecasts appear in retrospect to have been premature, misguided and based more on wishful thinking than on careful analysis. Going back at least as far as Theodore H. White’s award-winning chronicle of the 1960 campaign, journalists have been tempted to turn every presidential election into a historical turning point of some kind. Obama’s triumph may yet turn out to have marked such a crossroad, but probably not of the sort these writers imagined.