While the yearly Conservative Political Action Conference draws all manner of political animals that are generally classified as “on the right” (witness the Libertarian Party’s display, the Poker Players’ Alliance, and even the ACLU), the 2009 edition was clearly and definitively about the Republican Party.
Spectacular defeats, such as the one that was suffered by the GOP in the 2008 election, always bring finger pointing and soul searching. The two warring GOP factions this time around consist of those who would have the Republicans hearkin back to Ronald Reagan and what they call “first principles.” This is an attempt to keep the three-legged stool coalition created by Reagan (limited government, national security, religious conservatism) alive and well. Their antagonists, the reformers, want the GOP to “evolve” and look to the future, rather than backwards, to become electorally reinvigorated.
These reformers are typically represented by such personalities as Ross Douthat, David Frum, and Michael Gerson. While these reformers all have unique and different views of where the GOP must go, they can be painted with a broad brush as advocating a reinjection of populism into, if not the practicable policies, the rhetoric of what the GOP does.
The restoration faction believes that the GOP has gone off track, off message. The reformers believe that it’s the rigidity of ideology that has prevented the Republican brand from growing with the times.
It’s telling that not a few leading reformers are ex-Bush Administration officials. Bush took huge chances in a lot of ways to distance himself from the old coalitions and ended up villified for the majority of them. True, perhaps it was the Cold War black-and-white mentality that was the biggest detriment to Bush in the opinion polls, but it is pretty definitive that Bush was more reform than restoration.
Furthermore, the candidate championed by the reformers was the one who lead the party to such spectacular failure. Ever since John McCain’s ignominous defeat at Bush’s hands in the 2000 primaries, he branded himself as a “different kind of Republican.” While, again, it wasn’t so cut-and-dry (McCain’s rhetoric, rather than his practicable policies, leaned more towards a Reaganite than any new breed), McCain is and was undeniably a reformer.
So in my mind, the reformers are pretty much out of political capital. The last decade in national party politics for the GOP has been an exercise in reform. While “straying from the orthodoxy” is usually a derogatory term, this is what has happened and the absolute loss of credibility in the Republican brand is the endpoint.
“If only,” the reformers would say, “there could be a Republican who cared.” Imagine, if you will, a young up-and-comer who gives this kind of speech at the 2012 nominating convention for the Republicans:
“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.”
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this speech has already been given. More than one hundred years ago, these words came out of the mouth of the venerable Republican icon Teddy Roosevelt. Reformers are not, as they like to claim, looking forward to new ideas. They are looking backwards, far far further backwards than the restoration faction. The GOP’s reform faction criticizes the restorationists for sticking with what they call an outdated worldview. In reality, the reformers have revived an even older worldview in order to try to revive the GOP.
Before the Goldwater revolution (and indeed, even after), there was no party that understood the power of markets and a strong but limited government. This aspect of national party politics is a relatively new development. Indeed, it has been successfully carried out so few times on a national level that the more successful criticism is that the Reagan nostalgia is largely an act of pining for something that never really existed on a practical level.
The reformers have been more successful at communicating their message of populism than the restorers. They’ve won success, fame, and acclaim on a national level because they have been more able to engage the Democratic party (very clearly the party in control) on the Democratic party’s own turf. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t credible responses to this. There are. They may be more difficult to find, but they are out there for those who are actually interested in the subject.
Reformers are taking a century-old worldview and applying it to modern problems. Restorers need to take a much newer, much more modern, much more adapted-to-contemporary-times worldview to apply to modern problems.
The greatest and most apt criticism of the restoration crowd is not of their worldview but of their rhetoric and their policy focus. Healthcare has topped the list of Democratic priorities for years now and has only recently cracked the top five of Republicans’. The worldview is not the problem. The policy focus is.
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