WASHINGTON — Although they have become prone to apocalyptic forebodings about the fragility of the nation's institutions and traditions under the current president, conservatives should stride confidently into 2012. This is not because they are certain, or even likely, to defeat Barack Obama this year. Rather, it is because, if they emancipate themselves from their unconservative fixation on the presidency, they will see events unfolding in their favor. And when Congress is controlled by one party, as it might be a year from now, it can stymie an overreaching executive.
In 2011, for the first time in 62 years, America was a net exporter of petroleum products. For the foreseeable future, a specter is haunting progressivism, the specter of abundance. Because progressivism exists to justify a few people bossing around most people, and because progressives believe that only government's energy should flow unimpeded, they crave energy scarcities as an excuse for rationing — by them — that produces ever-more-minute government supervision of Americans' behavior.
Imagine what a horror 2011 was for progressives as Americans began to comprehend their stunning abundance of fossil fuels — beyond their two centuries' supply of coal. Progressives responded with attempts to impede development of the vast proven reserves of natural gas and oil here and in Canada. They bent the willowy Obama to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canadian tar sands; they raised environmental objections to new techniques for extracting gas and "tight" oil from shale formations.
An all-purpose rationale for rationing in its many permutations has been the progressives' preferred apocalypse, the fear of climate change. But environmentalism as the thin end of an enormous wedge of regulation and redistribution is a spent force. How many Americans noticed that the latest United Nations climate change confabulation occurred in December in Durban, South Africa?
The futility of this nullity signaled the end — probably for decades, if not forever — of a trivial pursuit that began 14 years ago with the Kyoto Protocol that the U.S. Senate would not even bring to a vote. The pursuit was for a 194-nation consensus obligating a few nations to transfer enormous wealth to many other nations' governments, to be politically distributed by them, with the supposed effect of ending global warming, if such proves to be.
Meanwhile, back in the nation that probably would have ponied up the largest portion of this money, sales of the electric-powered Chevrolet Volt were falling short of General Motors' goals even before reports about fire hazards in crash tests. And a Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed: "Americans Embrace SUVs Again."
Because of the Energy Department's myriad scandals and other misadventures as a venture capital firm (Solyndra, Beacon Power Corp., etc.), it is probable that 2011 will be remembered as the high-water mark of industrial policy. This is another way in which events are draining the Obama presidency of some of its power for mischief. If in November Republicans capture the Senate, which must confirm many senior officials of the executive branch and agencies, only weakness of Republican will can enable, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board to continue being unconstrained instruments of presidential decrees.
Political logic suggests that this year Obama will try to rekindle the love of young voters with some forgiveness of student debts. But one-third of students do not borrow to pay college tuition. The average debt for those who do borrow to attend a four-year public institution is $22,000 and the average difference between the per-year earnings of college graduates and those with only a high school diploma is ... $22,000.
It will be interesting to see how such a bailout of young and privileged borrowers will appeal to voters, who will begin to be heard from in Iowa. Before this year is many months old, discerning conservatives may decide that Obama probably has been rescued by the Republican nominating electorate and hence it is time to begin focusing on two things other than the 2012 presidential election. One is capturing the Senate. The other is preparing the ground for a better presidential nomination competition in 2016.
In any case, nothing that happens this November will bring an apocalypse. America had 43 presidencies before the current one and will have many more than that after the end of this one in 2013 or 2017. Decades hence, it will look like most others, a pebble in the river of American history.
George Will's email address is [email protected]