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Conservatives Vs. Reformers, As Told By David Brooks

Written By : John Hawkins
November 11, 2008

David Brooks, who can pretty much be counted on to love any idea that loses elections for Republicans, lays out the fight for the soul of the Republican Party as he sees it,

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It’s only been a week since the defeat, but the battle lines have already been drawn in the fight over the future of conservatism.

In one camp, there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed. George W. Bush was a big-government type who betrayed conservatism. John McCain was a Republican moderate, and his defeat discredits the moderate wing.

To regain power, the Traditionalists argue, the G.O.P. should return to its core ideas: Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin.

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the most prominent voices in the Traditionalist camp, but there is also the alliance of Old Guard institutions.

… The other camp, the Reformers, argue that the old G.O.P. priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. The reformers tend to believe that American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.

….The Reformist view is articulated most fully by books, such as “Comeback” by David Frum and “Grand New Party” by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, as well as the various writings of people like Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Rod Dreher, Peggy Noonan and, at the moderate edge, me.

The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the G.O.P.

They are going to win, first, because Congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven’t been conservative enough.

…There is not yet an effective Republican Leadership Council to nurture modernizing conservative ideas. There is no moderate Club for Growth, supporting centrist Republicans. The Public Interest, which used to publish an array of public policy ideas, has closed. Reformist Republican donors don’t seem to exist. Any publication or think tank that headed in an explicitly reformist direction would be pummeled by its financial backers. National candidates who begin with reformist records — Giuliani, Romney or McCain — immediately tack right to be acceptable to the power base.

I could write 2,000 or 3,000 words in response to this, but there are two central points that I want to make.

The first is that David Brooks refers to the moderates as “reformists.” But, what exactly are they really reforming, when their ideas have been the ones dominating the party for years? Bush is a “compassionate conservative.” Bush and the Senate GOP were strong advocates of big government and amnesty. John McCain was the most moderate nominee since Richard Nixon — and guess what? The GOP got creamed in two straight elections in large part because of those very policies.

I’m very much a conservative who also believes that the GOP needs to be reformed, but some of the most important “reforms” I want to implement are to get rid of the very policies that Brooks is proposing as if they aren’t already in place.

Secondly, I think there is an enormously important point that Brooks and many Republicans in D.C. are missing: politics is all about bodies. How many bodies can you get to help with turnout, to give you money, and to show up at the polls? The reality is, as Brooks readily admits, they don’t have the bodies.

Brooks even says that the “traditionalists” or as I would call them, the Republican wing of the Republican Party, are going to win in the short term because they control the institutions, they’re much more popular, and the people who hold Brooks’ philosophy have been wiped out at the ballot box.

Ehr….shouldn’t that tell him something about how good his ideas are?

Along the same lines, there’s this from Brooks,

“The Reformist view is articulated most fully by books, such as “Comeback” by David Frum and “Grand New Party” by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, as well as the various writings of people like Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Rod Dreher, Peggy Noonan and, at the moderate edge, me.”

You know, David Frum and Ross Douthat have always struck me as nice guys. Although I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, I think Rob Dreher has had some interesting thoughts about environmental issues. Ramesh Ponnuru is certainly a sharp guy and Peggy Noonan is sometimes extremely eloquent.

That being said, let’s compare this group with some other comparable names in the conservative movement. Say Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Thomas Sowell, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, & Laura Ingraham.

Which group draws bigger crowds, sells more books, and has more influence?

It’s pretty obvious that the conservative group leads legions while the “reformist group” can’t fill up bingo halls. Incidentally, there’s nothing on the horizon that seems poised to change that. As Brooks said,

…There is not yet an effective Republican Leadership Council to nurture modernizing conservative ideas. There is no moderate Club for Growth, supporting centrist Republicans. The Public Interest, which used to publish an array of public policy ideas, has closed. Reformist Republican donors don’t seem to exist. Any publication or think tank that headed in an explicitly reformist direction would be pummeled by its financial backers. National candidates who begin with reformist records — Giuliani, Romney or McCain — immediately tack right to be acceptable to the power base.

I’d add to that the blogosphere, where you’d certainly expect to see any grassroots changes in the way the Right thinks reflected, is maybe 5-10% “reformist” — and even that may be a little high.

So, here’s a very big, very real problem for Brooks and the people who agree with his ideas: even if you have wonderful ideas, how do you win elections when even the people on “your side” overwhelmingly don’t agree with you?

For example, if you believe that the country “will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government,” you’re going to have a hell of a hard time selling that to Republicans, most of whom believe that is one of the central tenets that the GOP should be organized around.

I’d also add that there is already a political party that has that view and if the Republican Party were to officially go that way as well, then we’re just moving around deck chairs on the Titanic anyway. That’s because if both parties have that philosophy, the country is doomed to go completely broke in a few decades and Americans are destined to end up living in one of the dystopian nightmare versions of the future that Hollywood has seemed to be so enthralled with over the last few years. (Let’s hope it’s one without fast zombies).

Getting back to the topic at hand, I would argue that the sort of “moderate” political party guys like Brooks want to build doesn’t work and will never work, because the lack of a workable ideology behind it means it can’t stir passions or draw bodies long-term.

Eventually, when a political party moves too far to the center, as the Republican Party has, it fails to energize its base and it starts to die. That’s particularly ironic in this case because the very policies Brooks and Company advocate are what have cooled the fires of the Republican base and when that happened, the first people to take a big hit were the moderates, in the West and Northeast, who got by in part on the passions of their more conservative brethren. Put another way, when the whole party takes a hit, the people who get hurt the worst are its most vulnerable members: exactly the sort of representatives whose views mirror those of people like David Brooks.

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