Political wise guys would have you believe that conservatives these days have but two options: either assisted living in a senior community or a bed in a hospice. We are headed for the ash heap of history, where we will be buried without honors — a footnote, at best, to 20th-century politics.
At least that’s what William F. Buckley Jr. biographer Sam Tanenhaus (“The Death of Conservatism”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“The age of Reagan is officially over”) are saying.
But do not despair, conservatives, we have been here before — in 1964, when conservative Barry Goldwater was trounced in the presidential campaign; in 1976, when conservative Ronald Reagan lost the Republican presidential nomination to Jerry Ford; in 1992, when liberal Bill Clinton won the presidency; in 2008, when progressive Barack Obama was elected.
Each time, conservatives came roaring back.
Just four years after his landslide win, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, and Goldwater was easily re-elected to the Senate.
Only four years after Reagan lost the nomination to Ford, he was handily elected the 40th president of the United States.
Just two years after Mr. Clinton was sworn in, Newt Gingrich and his conservative cohorts proposed a Contract with America that enabled Republicans to capture the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.
Only two years after President Obama was first elected president, the grass-roots movement known as the Tea Party exploded into existence, and Republicans recaptured the House and almost the Senate as well as a majority of state legislatures.
Was all this luck? Divine providence? Proof that American politics swings back and forth every generation or so between the left and the right?
I believe in providence, but I also believe in free will. Conservatism rose from the ashes of defeat every time because of the enduring ideas of F.A. Hayek and Russell Kirk, because of popularizers such as Bill Buckley and Rush Limbaugh, and because of charismatic leaders such as Goldwater and Reagan, who ran without apology on the first principles of the American Founding.
Where did Reagan get the ideas for his successful presidency? Who deepened and widened the conservative movement that Buckley tirelessly championed?
Time and again, these conservative giants turned to the Heritage Foundation and its president, Ed Feulner, to guide them on the rocky road to ordered liberty.
President Reagan described Mr. Feulner as an “intellectual, administrator, politician, diplomat, but most of all, dreamer and darer.” He understood, the president said, that “the best way to ride the tide of history is to make a few waves of [your] own.”
Mr. Feulner has done more than that. He changed the tide of history.
Before Reagan made the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) the cornerstone of his arms negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, Heritage underwrote the groundbreaking study “High Frontier,” which outlined a missile-defense system that would knock down incoming Soviet missiles.
We all know that Reagan’s unyielding commitment to SDI convinced Mr. Gorbachev that the Soviet Union could not win an arms race with the United States and led to the end of the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.
Before Reagan introduced his Economic Tax Recovery Act of 1981, Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership study recommended a 30 percent across-the-board income-tax cut. The cuts, along with indexing, ignited the longest period of economic growth — some 20 years — in modern times.
Name a major issue of the past 30 years, and you will find that Heritage and its analysts played a significant role in almost every one, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, welfare reform, Osama bin Laden and homeland security, school choice, enterprise zones in the inner cities, farm subsidies and nuclear energy.
This explains why Mr. Feulner, who is stepping down as Heritage president after 36 years, remains optimistic, grounded in his faith in the American people. Heritage has and always will seek to inform the people, rouse the people and inspire the people.
If we do that, he says, paraphrasing Reagan, the people will remind Washington and its elected officials that we are not a government with a people. We are a people with a government.
-Lee Edwards is the Heritage Foundation’s Distinguished Fellow of Conservative Thought. His most recent book is “Leading the Way: The Story of Ed Feulner and The Heritage Foundation” (Crown Forum, 2013).
First appeared in The Washington Times.