Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Misdiagnosing the Problem

David Brooks has a column in today's New York Times on the split in the conservative movement following last week's election.
In one camp, there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe that conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed.

[...] 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.

[...] 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.

Moreover, the Reformers say, conservatives need to pay attention to the way the country has changed. Conservatives have to appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters. They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West Coasts.

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.
Brooks' list of "reformers" isn't really a list of people agreed on anything - including the fundamental direction in which to take the Republican Party. Rod Drehers condemns wars like the one in Iraq and opposes society's consumer mentality. In that sense, he's a bit more paleocon than most. David Frum argues that the party should moderate its social conservatism,
College-educated Americans have come to believe that their money is safe with Democrats – but that their values are under threat from Republicans. And there are more and more of these college-educated Americans all the time.

So the question for the GOP is: Will it pursue them? To do so will involve painful change, on issues ranging from the environment to abortion. And it will involve potentially even more painful changes of style and tone: toward a future that is less overtly religious, less negligent with policy, and less polarizing on social issues.
Dreher, no fundamentalist to be sure, would nevertheless object to such a proposal. In fact, he does.
Let me make a point that's going to be overlooked among secular conservatives of Reformist impulse: no conservative movement that hopes to be successful can do so without religious conservatives. It will be very easy for secular Reform conservatives to sell op-ed pieces to newspapers, in which they argue that the GOP will not be revived until and unless it cuts itself free from the Religious Right. It'll be easy for them to sell that point because it suits the prejudices of the kind of secular liberals who run the media. But it's quite wrong.
Meanwhile, Peggy Noonan's break with the party is as follows, in a column on her opposition to Sarah Palin
For seven weeks I've listened to her, trying to understand if she is Bushian or Reaganite—a spender, to speak briefly, whose political decisions seem untethered to a political philosophy, and whose foreign policy is shaped by a certain emotionalism, or a conservative whose principles are rooted in philosophy, and whose foreign policy leans more toward what might be called romantic realism, and that is speak truth, know America, be America, move diplomatically, respect public opinion, and move within an awareness and appreciation of reality.
In other words, Noonan's prescription? More Reagan. Seems like a traditionalist to me.

In other words, Brooks' column sets up a false dichotomy. His "reformers" do, however, have one thing in common: they all opposed Sarah Palin as the VP nominee. So, either you're with Hannity and Limbaugh (and thereby discredited) or you're with the really smart people in the party - the anti-Palin crowd. If you think the solution should be to make sure government does the things it needs to do more efficiently, you've got blinders on. If you think government needs to start doing a lot more, even if it remains as inefficient as it is today, you're enlightened and a "reformer." If you happen to think smaller, more efficient government is the way to go, you also hate Hispanics. If you think bigger, less efficient government is the future, you're also enlightened enough to know that the Hispanic vote is important for the future of the Party. Here's what Yuval Levin, one of Brooks' "reformers" has to say:
[T]he David Brooks column...gets the basic picture wrong. I don’t think the notion of reform conservatism should be contrasted with or opposed to the views of the people Brooks calls the “traditionalists.”

As I see it, the basic idea is to apply conservative principles and ingenuity to a broader range of problems than we have been used to thinking about—to think in concrete policy terms about the worries of American families, and offer concrete conservative proposals for reforming our governing institutions. These need to be extensions of conservative successes in the past, like tax and welfare reform: applications of our basic view of the world to the problems of the day.

This kind of reformism is the conservative tradition, not a substitute for it. And its aim is not to move conservatives to the center, but to move the country to the right. It is not, to my mind at least, opposed to what Brooks’s “traditionalists” are trying to do, let alone is it trying to exclude social conservatives—as you might imagine, that’s not something Ramesh, or Ross Douthat, or I would want to see.
In other words, if Brooks can't accurately assess the problem, whatever his solution is is bound to fail.


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