The Corner

Brooks Misses Something

That was an interesting column David Brooks had yesterday (within the Times fortress of solitude) in which he argues that the GOP refuses to change. You got a little of it here yesterday, here’s some more:

At the University of Chicago there’s a group of scholars who are members of what is called the Rational Expectations school of economics. They believe human beings tend to anticipate unpleasant future events and seek in advance to avoid them. Their teachings do not apply to the Republican Party.

The Republicans suffered one unpleasant event in November 2006, and they are headed toward an even nastier one in 2008. The Democrats have opened up a wide advantage in party identification and are crushing the G.O.P. among voters under 30.

Moreover, there has been a clear shift, in poll after poll, away from Republican positions on social issues and on attitudes toward government. Democratic approaches are favored on almost all domestic, tax and fiscal issues, and even on foreign affairs.

The public, in short, wants change.

And yet the Republicans refuse to offer that. On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along. They privately believe the country needs new approaches to the war against Islamic extremism, but they don’t offer them. They try to block Democratic initiatives, but they don’t offer the country any new ways to think about the G.O.P.

They are like people quietly marching to their doom.

And at the presidential level, things are even worse. The party is blessed with a series of charismatic candidates who are not orthodox Republicans. But the pressures of the campaign are such that these candidates have had to repress anything that might make them interesting.

Me: He gives four reason for the immobility of the GOP.

1) The structural impediments — i.e. special interest groups running the machinery.

2) The “corrupting influence of teamism.”

3) “Third, there is the oppressive power of the past. Conservatives have allowed a simplistic view of Ronald Reagan to define the sacred parameters of thought. Reagan himself was flexible, unorthodox and creative. But conservatives have created a mythical, rigid Reagan, and any deviation from that is considered unholy.” And last, the GOP suffers from “bunker mentality” due to the shellacking it keeps taking from the press, the Democrats and, well, reality.

I think Brooks is partly correct on all of these. But I have two objections.

First, Brooks conflates conservatism and GOP policies. As close readers know this is increasingly a major bugaboo of mine. The mess the GOP and the conservative movement are in, to some degree, stem from the lamentable fact that whatever Bush does has come to define conservatism and, in many corners, conservatism has come to mean defending Bush’s policies.

Which leads us to objection number 2. What Brooks sees as a the base’s inability to accept change is often, in reality, a burning desire for change. He mocks the clamor for Fred Thompson to run as an “Authentic Conservative” but he fails to see, or at least credit, the degree to which the call for “Authentic Conservatism” is a rebuke of Bush. Compassionate conservatism was the change. And, I would argue, that change has done lasting damage to conservatism and to the GOP. And so now many want something new. The call for authentic conservatism, fairly or not, is not a call for staying the course.

And, one should recall, David’s writing contributed a lot of oxygen to the legitimacy of compassionate conservatism. It has now been rejected by substantial quarters of the GOP and the invocations of Reaganism amount to the base’s way of saying the experiment failed.

Brooks’s points are all well taken, but I think he’s over-interpreting what amounts to a little more than the usual machinations and positioning of the early primaries where special interests are the most influential.

BTW, sorry for the long post, but Beinart and I are going to discuss the Brooks column in our next What’s Your Problem? taping and so I figured I’d write up some preliminary thoughts.

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