For every American conservative of a certain age, a primary memory is the evening of Nov. 4, 1980, when we knew Ronald Reagan, leader of the movement since 1966, derided by liberal elites and despised by the Republican establishment, won the presidency. So the desperate gamble of modern conservatism might pay off, conservatism had a chance, America had a chance. And then, a decade later — with the Cold War won and the economy revived — conservatism was vindicated, America was restored. It was an unbelievable victory made so many years ago against such odds.
But that was then, and this is now. 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 a compelling conservative leader of long standing but ever youthful, a man who stood tall and spoke for us and for America. Assuming the presidential field stays as it is, 2012 won’t be a repeat of 1980.
Which is not to say that 2012 can’t be a good, even a very good, election for conservatives and for the country. There are other models for victory. In 1992 an incumbent president was soundly defeated by an impressive though flawed candidate who emerged from a weak field, after leading lights in his party refused to run (Cuomo, Bradley, Gore, Gephardt). President Bill Clinton doesn’t provide a model of successful governance for the next Republican president — our next president is going to have to lead, not accommodate — but he does suggest another, less elegant model than 1980 for the defeat of a weakened incumbent.
And then there’s 1932, when a not particularly distinguished four-year governor who’d zigged and zagged back and forth to be acceptable to large parts of the Democratic Party, and whose political career was at first based partly on his last name, defeated another incumbent. Franklin D. Roosevelt did turn out to be a consequential president — because of the nature of the challenges he faced, because the country was ready for fundamental change, because there was a movement around him that was full of ideas and energy, because there were strong representatives of that movement in Congress and in statehouses and because he rose to the occasion.
These other models for conservative success in 2012 need to be studied for their lessons and adapted to our times. Reversing America’s weakness abroad, restoring solvency and prosperity and limiting government at home, these are tasks too important not to be achieved because of our nostalgic disappointment that we will not, in 2012, replay a 1980 that is not to be again — and that perhaps never truly was.
William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.