OH, how they itch to declare this election the funeral of conservatism! The epitaphs are everywhere. George Bush, they are saying, will become to Republicans what Jimmy Carter was to the Democrats -- the specter haunting future nominees.
Maybe, but if so, it won't be fair. Mr. Carter became a ghost because he truly represented his party. Leaving aside matters of style, he performed in office the way most of his party would have, and with the support of a Democratic Congress. His failure to stand firm against communism wasn't a personal eccentricity, it was characteristic of his party, and the voters knew it.
Now that George Bush has been decisively dismissed by the voters, some are rushing to paint this as the defeat of a creature called "Reagan/Bush." But the animal is a fiction. The only people who think George Bush is a conservative are liberals. Conservatives have never been so misguided about the man. Mr. Bush governed more like Michael Dukakis than like Ronald Reagan. He raised taxes, increased regulation of industry, signed a quota bill and kept the conservative reform agenda at arm's length. Mr. Bush deliberately sought to put distance between his policies and those of his predecessor. And each got his just desserts at the polls when he stood for re-election.
Former education secretary and drug czar Bill Bennett told the New York Times, "We've been in office for 12 years. We got tired. We forgot why we came." I don't agree. George Bush never embraced the ideas that brought Ronald Reagan to Washington. He coasted along in Mr. Reagan's wake like a sea gull following an ocean liner.
Did conservatives forget why they came? Absolutely not. And if Mr. Bush had heeded the advice of those in his administration (Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Bill Kristol, Jim Pinkerton) who offered conservative ideas, he would be preparing now for his second inaugural.
Here's the greatest irony of the election of 1992: Bill Clinton, the so-called candidate of change, is really the candidate of the status quo. He is the establishment candidate -- fawned over by every establishment institution from the New York Times to the four television networks, to university presidents, to Hollywood stars, to the leadership of Congress.
Bill Clinton's ideas -- higher taxes on families earning more than $200,000; "investment" in infrastructure, high-speed rail and high technology; and choice only in public schools -- are the spent, lifeless "ideas" of the ruling elite in Congress. They represent not change but a continuation of the status quo (though the taxes may delay or abort the current economic recovery).
George Bush, by contrast, was at least on record as supporting truly mold-breaking, courageous experimentation offered by his conservative cabinet members. Mr. Bush paid lip service to school choice, which would break the stranglehold of the National Education Association. He endorsed enterprise zones and home ownership for the poor. His health care proposals would have dramatically changed the employment-based system that now denies coverage to some 30 million Americans.
But what voter, looking at the two candidates, would have believed that Mr. Bush was the innovator and Mr. Clinton the stick-in-the-mud? Far from trumpeting his bold program, George Bush seemed not to know it existed. Not until the third debate (much too late) did he seem to realize that 1992 was an election year. "I predict he'll make a fine former president," I told a friend. "Well, it seems like he was campaigning for it," he replied.
Was this election a rejection of conservatism? Take one crude indicator. An exit poll asked, "Which do you prefer? Higher taxes and more government services or lower taxes and fewer government services?" Two-thirds of voters picked the second alternative. And remember, Mr. Clinton didn't run as a liberal. He was at pains to call himself a "new" Democrat, supposedly moving away from "tax and spend."
Small consolation, perhaps, for conservatives who watched Bruce Herschensohn, Bob Kasten and many others get sucked into the funnel created by Mr. Bush. But the Republican Party, lumbering beast that it is, was never going to resume its Reaganite role as the party of reform until George Bush, James Baker, Rich Bond, Richard Darman and company were cashiered.
Now the party can do what it ought to have done in 1988 -- consolidate behind Jack Kemp.
Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.