Will Things Get Better for Conservatives in 2009?

Conservatives now laying their plans for the coming New Year might best be advised to begin by looking backward. A glance in the rearview mirror should suffice to demonstrate the difficulty in anticipating political developments, and the importance of being prepared for unexpected contingencies.

A year ago -- in late December 2007 -- an NBC poll showed Mitt Romney leading among Republicans in the Iowa caucuses at 27 percent, with John McCain a distant fourth, behind Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. On the Democratic side, Iowa looked like a three-way dead heat: John Edwards at 24 percent, Hillary Clinton at 23 percent, Barack Obama at 22 percent. About the same time, another poll showed Romney leading McCain by 14 points in New Hampshire, with Rudolph Giuliani a close third.

Most conservatives in late 2007 still held the same "Stop Hillary" mindset they had held ever since Bush's 2004 re-election. Every bit of bad news for Hillary was cheered by Republicans, who expected her to win the nomination, but who were happy to see her bashed and battered in the process.

Few in the GOP at that time imagined that the damage -- as when Tim Russert tripped her up with a debate question about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to grant driver's licenses to illegal aliens -- would ultimately sink Clinton and make Obama the nominee. Fewer still expected that McCain, whose fundraising woes nearly ended his candidacy in late summer 2007, would emerge to win the GOP nomination.

Hindsight shows how foolish were the expectations that prevailed as 2007 came to a close. Conservatives shared the Clinton campaign's belief that the former first lady would score an early knockout in the Democratic primaries, essentially locking up the nomination on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. As Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly has since reported, that mistaken belief was a key factor in the failure of Team Hillary to organize effectively for a long nomination battle.