Can GOP's local success translate to the federal level?
Republicans are doomed. Conservatism is over. President Obama is conducting a mop-up operation at this point.
That's the basic consensus in places like New York City, Washington, D.C., and other citadels of blue America.
And let's be fair: The GOP has its troubles. Long-term demographic trends; often-irrational animosity from Hollywood, the media and academia; and a thumbless grasp of the culture on the part of many Republicans all create a head wind for the party and the broader conservative movement.
But here's the weird part. That's all true of presidential politics, but less so when it comes to state politics or even other federal races. In 2010, the GOP had its best performance in congressional races since 1938.
In North Carolina, a state that is supposed to represent the trends benefiting Democrats, the GOP now has veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate. Last November, North Carolina became the 30th state with a GOP governor.
There are a lot of possible explanations that are not mutually exclusive. Obama is more popular than his party. Mitt Romney was less popular than the ideas he had such a hard time expressing. Presidential electorates are different.
No matter the merits of these observations, they don't fully explain why Republicans are doing so well on the policy front. In states as diverse as Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and a half-dozen others, Republicans have been implementing impressive — even miraculous — reforms.
In pro-Obama Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker beat back a historic attack from organized labor. And Michigan — Michigan! — recently became a right-to-work state.
Americans tend to see federal and local governments differently. At the local level, people seem to have a better grasp that it's their tax dollars at work. They are far more sensitive to tax increases and more easily outraged by spending boondoggles. They understand the importance of sustainable economic growth.
At the local level, this fact benefits Republicans, although state-level Democrats tend to be more fiscally responsible as well.
Meanwhile, what gets Republicans elected at the local level gets them in trouble at the federal level. We've come to see the federal government as some sort of mystical entity empowered to right all of the wrongs in society. If there's a problem, there “should” be a federal response, the costs or feasibility of that response be damned.
And Democrats are better at talking about government in spiritual terms. They talk about the federal government doing things we'd want God to do if God dabbled in public policy. They use the logic of religion, which holds that there is a unitary and seamless nature to all good things, and therefore no good thing government does should come at the expense of some other good thing government might do. And, worst of all, they castigate anyone who opposes more spending on, say, “the children” or “the environment” as morally retrograde and “against children” and “against the environment.”
The challenge for Republicans is to convince the American people that the government isn't magic, and that all of its money is your money, its debts your debts. I don't think the GOP is doomed, but America might be if Americans remained unconvinced too much longer.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.”