For every American conservative, not once but whenever he wants it, it’s always the evening of November 4, 1980, the instant when we knew Ronald Reagan, the man who gave the speech in the lost cause of 1964, leader of the movement since 1966, derided by liberal elites and despised by the Republican establishment, the moment when we knew—he’d won, we’d won, the impossible dream was possible, the desperate gamble of modern conservatism might pay off, conservatism had a chance, America had a chance. And then, a decade later—the Cold War won, the economy revived, America led out of the abyss, we’d come so far with so much at stake—conservatism vindicated, America restored, a desperate and unbelievable victory for the cast made so many years ago against such odds.
But that was then, and this is now. Now is 2012, and it seems clear that 2012 isn’t going to be another 1980. The reality seems to be that we’re not going to have a chance to replay that election, with (at least in the hazy glow of retrospect) a compelling conservative leader of long standing but ever youthful, a man who stood tall and spoke for us and for America, riding gracefully to victory over the GOP establishment in the primaries and over decadent liberalism in the general election. Assuming the presidential field stays as it is, 2012 won’t be a repeat of 1980.
As Kristol goes on to note, the fact that the 2012 dynamic seems like it will be different from that of 1980 might not be the worst thing in the world: there are other models for successful presidential campaigns than Reagan's.
Bill Jacobson thinks that we should blame conservative "technocrats" for this difference. Instead, I tend to think that, in order for conservatism and Republicanism to grow, it cannot be held hostage to a single electoral model. Yes, Reagan did a lot of good things as president. But some of what Reagan ran on in 1980 is no longer applicable (I don't think diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union are exactly a pressing issue anymore). And there are plenty of issues where Reagan's talk didn't exactly align with his actions; the Department of Education, which he ran on abolishing, only grew during his tenure. Furthermore, there are other points where self-styled "conservative" purists would excoriate Reagan for his governance. Of the current top-tier presidential candidates, the one whose stance on Social Security is closest to Reagan's is probably Mitt Romney, a man derided by many purists as a technocrat.
History changes, leading to new issues and new policy alignments. A political coalition unable to create narratives to cope with these changes is one that is fated to wither. In an interesting post earlier this week, Ace at Ace of Spades HQ argued that the hunt for the "Great Conservative Candidate" can sometimes substitute wishful thinking for realistic reflection. Conservatives cannot afford to let nostalgia displace critical thinking. As much as he admired Calvin Coolidge, Reagan did not try to put in place a Coolidge economic program. He adapted certain small-government principles into new policies. Conservatives would be wise to follow in the spirit of this example.