I confess to being a fatalistic conservative.
Ever since I read Bill Buckley's The Jeweler's Eye at the age of 16 and was convinced, my sense has been that the long-term trend of American politics was in the wrong direction. Political fortunes ebb and flow, but over time liberalism inevitably gained ground.
Liberal gains were permanent; conservative gains ephemeral. The central domestic policy success of the Reagan presidency was the reduction in the top individual income tax rate to 28 percent. In less than a decade, it was back up to nearly 40 percent under Bill Clinton. Under George W. Bush, it was reduced to 35 percent, amidst accusations that he was giving away the store to the rich. After Barack Obama allows the Bush cuts at the top to expire at the end of this year, it will back over 40 percent.
At the state level, the record is slightly more encouraging. Under Gov. Fife Symington there was a very creative and constructive burst of conservative governance. Those reforms - school choice, welfare reform, truth-in-sentencing, individual income tax rate reductions - have endured.
In general, however, conservatives seem better at dissent than at governance. George W. Bush's experiment in big-government conservatism was a colossal failure.Arizona has probably the most conservative governor and Legislature in its history. Yet the biggest idea they are pushing is the liberal industrial policy fallacy -- that general economic growth can be stimulated through subsidies to politically favored industries.
Watching Gov. Jan Brewer fete, at her State of the State address, a solar equipment manufacturer for bringing around 200 jobs to a state with 2.8 million workers was both amusing and disheartening.
The biggest source of my pessimism, however, has been voter sentiment. Conservatives like to reassure themselves that the American electorate is, at root, center right. With respect to social issues, that's certainly the case. With respect to economic issues, American voters are center right compared to electorates in Western Europe.
But on the fundamental dividing line between liberals and conservatives - should government be bigger or smaller - the American electorate is more accurately described as center left. Voters occasionally want the increase in government to be slowed down. But they haven't yet shown any support for actually reducing it. Even Reagan couldn't get that done.
The question is whether voter attitudes are changing, making true conservative reforms that actually reduce the size of government feasible. A recent extensive survey by the PewResearchCenter indicates that it's possible.
The headlines from the Pew report have been about distrust in the federal government reaching an all-time high. That, however, is an emotional sentiment that can come and go.
On the fundamental question of whether the federal government should be bigger with more services or smaller with fewer services, there has been a dramatic shift since just 2008, when voter sentiment was evenly divided. Today, it's in favor of smaller government by a 50 percent to 39 percent margin.
Just a year ago, voters thought more government control over the economy was a good idea by a 54 percent to 37 percent margin. Today, voters think it's a bad idea, 51 percent to 40 percent.
I think voters got sticker shock from the bailouts, stimulus packages, the Fed printing press and a trillion dollar health care entitlement. There's broad recognition that the country can't afford the government it has, much less a bigger one.
This has lead to a voter backlash against Obama and the Democrats, who are perceived as pushing for even bigger government, that positions Republicans well for the next election.
But do voters want Republicans just to slow Democrats down, or to right-size government into something affordable? And will Republican candidates actually have the moxie to run on proposals to do that?
There's not yet enough to give a fatalistic conservative actual optimism. But there's enough to melt his cynicism at least a bit.