'What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?’: Jimmy Carter, America’s ‘Malaise,’ and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country By Kevin Mattson Bloomsbury ISDN 978-1596915213

The Death of Conservatism By Sam Tanenhaus Random House ISDN 978-1400068845

The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star By Matthew Continetti Penguin Sentinel ISDN 978-1595230614

Until recently, Republicans were in the doldrums. Having lost both levels of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, the Grand Old Party (GOP) became the minority party in Washington. A Time cover last year declared Republicans an “endangered species”. Liberal Democrats dominate US politics for the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But there are signs of hope for the Right. At the time of writing, Barack Obama’s poll numbers are at record lows and his policy agenda is stalled in legislative limbo. After winning the Massachusetts senate seat that the Kennedy clan had held for 60 years, Republicans are set to claw back Democratic majorities in November’s congressional elections. These three books help explain the rise, downfall and rebirth of the American conservative movement. All are worth reading, but none presents a convincing thesis.

As a political era, the conservative realignment began in 1979—in response to Vietnam, Watergate, the oil crisis, economic stagflation and the decline of American power overseas. All of these concerns were reflected in Jimmy Carter’s 32-minute television address to the nation on 15 July 1979. Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson thought the speech was so significant that he has made it the subject of his book, What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? (which takes its title from a New York Post headline about the president’s 10-day absence during which he was planning this key-note speech). In his Oval Office remarks, Carter proclaimed a “crisis of confidence” in America, one “that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will.” It came to be known as ‘the malaise speech,’ even though he never uttered the m-word.

The response was initially popular: it touched something in the American psyche, a worry about failing their better ideals. Yet the speech is widely blamed for dooming Carter’s re-election prospects in 1980. The conservative reaction was reflected in Ronald Reagan’s optimistic counter-narrative: “I find no national malaise. I find nothing wrong with the American people.” It was rooted in nostalgia for the post-war decades, a sense that the US, once the unchallenged global leader, was in decline, and that to reverse that decline it was necessary to re-embrace the notion of exceptionalism—the idea that America is a different nation that has a special duty to redeem the world. Where Carter had come to stand for defeat and acceptance of limits, Reagan stood for victory and unbridled optimism.

Far from seeing it as a big mistake, Mattson contends that Carter’s speech is almost on par with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech or Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—a brave attempt to guide an insecure nation out of the morass, a vision that the author believes could resonate today. Mattson laments that the president’s opponents on Left (Ted Kennedy) and Right (Ronald Reagan) twisted its meaning, but Carter spoke a language that was alien to the American tradition. Unlike Wilson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, he seemed to be telling his fellow citizens that America was a nation in decline and they needed to recognise that the period of US global pre-eminence was over. Not for Carter any grand, noble causes. Taken together with a widespread sense that Carter was “generally not in control of things,” the malaise speech culminated in Reagan’s landslide victory.

Mattson is right to mark 1979 as a turning point in the political landscape. Modern conservatism, born in the mid-1950s, reached its zenith with Reagan’s elections in 1980 and 1984, and it was propelled by intellectuals and by publications that, according to New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, “spoke to the deepest issues of culture and society”. Today, however, it is heading towards oblivion, if Tanenhaus’s title The Death of Conservatism is correct. “Today’s conservatives,” he writes, “resemble the exhumed figures of Pompei, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.” They should offer fresh measured ideas instead of the same old apocalyptic malice. More Edmund Burke; less Rush Limbaugh.

It’s true the GOP lacks a national leader, it is riven by factionalism and, as the intellectual shallowness of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter shows, the movement sometimes displays a lack of philosophical reflection. But Tanenhaus overstates his thesis that modern conservatism is outmoded. According to polls, 40 per cent of Americans identify themselves as conservatives whereas only 20 per cent say they’re liberal. Tanenhaus frets about the ideological shrillness on the Right, but says nothing about the wing-nuts on the Left. He says the conservative movement has lost its connection with classic conservatism’s own essential modesty: its proper role was to act as a counter to ‘liberal overreach’; now it’s focusing more on uncreative destruction. Yet he does not equate the Democratic spendthrift agenda, especially nationalised health care and cap-and-tax climate policy, as evidence of a ‘liberal overreach’, even though polls show a majority of Americans are deeply uneasy with a let-government-solve-it agenda.

But while Republicans are crawling out of the graveyard, it is unlikely they will nominate Sarah Palin as their presidential candidate in 2012. The Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti says the former Alaskan governor should not be underestimated. In The Persecution of Sarah Palin, he argues that the media reached new levels of dishonesty and double standard in its treatment of John McCain’s running mate during and after the 2008 campaign. “Palin’s enemies decided nothing’s too personal to attack—including her marriage, children, faith, even her wardrobe.” Indeed, it is disturbing how Palin—a working mum who was only the second female vice-presidential candidate in US history—has driven so-called progressives into fits of contempt and condescension. During the campaign, the media spread several falsehoods: for example, that she didn’t read any newspapers; she didn’t know Africa was a continent; and she said she could see Russia from her house. Continetti rejects these and other claims in convincing fashion.

The problem, though, is that Palin violates not just the sensibilities of “urban elites,” but also a good chunk of Middle America, including Republicans. So much so that leading conservative columnists David Brooks, George Will and Peggy Noonan think she is a cancer on the GOP. A recent Washington Post poll shows that 71 per cent of Americans—including 52 per cent of Republicans—think she is not qualified to be president.

Americans, unlike Australians who tend to be more temperamentally conservative, are a fickle lot. Having elected Obama 18 months ago, they have now got tired of waiting for him to bring the kind of change that they wanted: only 37 per cent think the nation is on the right track (against 58 per cent who believe it is on the wrong track). Perhaps, as Mattson suggests, three decades after president Carter’s malaise speech Americans are still struggling to come to grips with their nation’s limits in a complex world that does not conform to their expectations. No one should be surprised if, in November, they decide they are fed up with the Democrats who control the House of Representatives and Senate and vote Republican in the mid-term elections. That won’t set the scene for Palin in 2012, but neither does it signal the death of conservatism in the United States.