WITH the death on Tuesday of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the Baptist minister and founder of the Moral Majority, and the announcement on Thursday that Paul D. Wolfowitz would resign from the presidency of the World Bank, two major figures in the modern conservative movement exited the political stage. To many, this is the latest evidence that the conservative movement, which has dominated politics during the last quarter century, is finished.
But conservatives have heard this before, and have yet to give in. Weeks after Barry Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeat in 1964 to Lyndon B. Johnson, his supporters organized the American Conservative Union to take on the Republican Party establishment. After failing to unseat Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, Ronald Reagan positioned himself for the 1980 election. The conservatives dismayed by the election of Bill Clinton spent the next eight years attacking him at every opportunity. And after failing to win a conviction of Mr. Clinton following his impeachment, Republicans, far from retreating into caution or self-doubt, kept up the pressure and turned the 2000 election into a referendum on Mr. Clinton’s character.
What accounts for this resilience — or stubbornness?
For one thing, since its beginnings in the 1950s, conservatism has been an insurgent movement fought on many fronts — cultural, moral and philosophical. Leaders on the right, as well as the rank and file, have always believed that defeats were inevitable and the odds often long.
Consider the careers, or cases, of Mr. Falwell and Mr. Wolfowitz . That the two were polar opposites in almost every way says a good deal about the movement they served — for one thing about its ability in its formative years, the 1970s and 80s, to make room for a constellation of agendas.
Mr. Falwell, a bootlegger’s son who disapproved of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights activism because “preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul-winners” changed his mind amid the “secular” excesses of the 1960s and went on to found Moral Majority Inc. The organization mobilized the Christian right into a political force that eventually helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980 and also established the Republican Party as the home of politically active Christian evangelicals.
Mr. Wolfowitz was not a “movement conservative.” He did not inveigh against the sins of “secular liberalism” or homosexuals and the American Civil Liberties Union.
But like Mr. Falwell, he came to politics in the 1970s, when the conservative insurgency was reaching its apex and new ideological lines were emerging. Mr. Wolfowitz, from a family of immigrant Jews from Poland, was a brilliant student whose teachers included three neoconservative giants — Allan Bloom, Leo Strauss and Albert Wohlstetter. He felt out of place on the Yale faculty and discovered his métier as a military strategist in the Ford Administration. In his first major assignment he joined a team of analysts who drew up a dire, and some said, exaggerated analysis of Soviet military strength.
The report clashed with intelligence assessments, presaging Mr. Wolfowitz’s clash with intelligence experts in the months leading up to the Iraq invasion.
During this period, the ideas espoused by Mr. Falwell and Mr. Wolfowitz, though both were valued on the right, did not mesh; they were unconnected, spokes in the large conservative wheel. And so they remained during the first months of George W. Bush’s administration.
But after 9/11, neoconservatives and evangelicals found common cause in their shared belief in American exceptionalism and in the idea that the country’s values could be exported abroad. Mr. Bush was receptive to the synthesis, and it became the ideological centerpiece of the war on terror, with its stated mission to combat the “axis of evil” in a global “war on terror.”
Today, of course, this vision, has been widely repudiated, if not altogether discredited. The public has grown skeptical, or maybe just tired, of the hard-edged and often polarizing politics. And this change coincides with broad-based skepticism of the Bush presidency itself — as witnessed by Mr. Bush’s and his party’s perilously low approval ratings. The G.O.P.’s embrace of the conservative movement is beginning, some say, to resemble a death grip.
But there have been no signs of atonement within the movement. Mr. Falwell, who notoriously suggested that the Sept. 11 attacks reflected God’s judgment of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” said last September that he hoped Hillary Clinton was running for president because she would outdo “Lucifer” in energizing his constituents.
Then there is Mr. Wolfowitz. The figure he is often compared to is, of course, Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, who like him had been a brutal infighter at the Pentagon, as he helped engineer a disastrous war. When Mr. McNamara left to head the World Bank, he seemed stricken by his failure in Vietnam and approached his new position with “a touch of penance,” as David Halberstam wrote in “The Best and the Brightest.”
Not Mr. Wolfowitz. Apparently unchastened by the Iraq disaster — though he was its intellectual architect — he simply carried his mission to a new venue, “adopting a single-minded position on certain matters, refusing to entertain alternative views, marginalizing dissenters,” as Steven R. Weisman reported in The Times.
These differences aren’t surprising. Mr. McNamara was a technician, an efficiency expert and systems manager unattached to any political ideology. He viewed Vietnam as a problem, not a cause. Whereas for Mr. Wolfowitz, Iraq was a fixation — as indeed it has been, and remains, for the principal figures in the Bush administration, who are still deeply committed conservatives.
George Bush himself is, after all, the first president who came of age while the conservative movement was in full force, and it continues to guide him, just as it continues to guide members of the Republican base who still back the administration and who are almost certain to choose the party’s next nominee.
These views, of course, are sharply at odds with public opinion. The unpopularity of the Iraq war is nearing Vietnam proportions, and President Bush’s plummeting poll numbers resemble those of Mr. McNamara’s boss, Lyndon B. Johnson.
Meanwhile, the conservative movement finds itself in a new place. No longer insurgents, its leaders now form an entrenched establishment, just like the liberals and moderates they defeated a generation ago. But if Mr. Wolfowitz’s brief tenure at the World Bank is any indication, they are a long way from feeling chastened.