The Corner

It’s The Bitter What-Might-Have-Beens That Keep You Warm

Ross Douthat is downright melancholy. From a long post on his bitter clinginess:

But I think the deeper reason for my political gloom has to do with something that Jonah Goldberg raised in our bloggingheads chat about conservatism – namely, the sense that the era now passing represented a great opportunity to put into practice the sort of center-right politics that I’d like to see from the Republican Party, and that by failing the way it did the Bush Administration may have cut the ground out from under my own ideas before I’d even figured out exactly what they were.  As I said to Jonah. I have all sorts of disagreements with the specific ways President Bush attempted to renovate the GOP, on the level of policy and philosophy alike. But the fact remains that the renovation Bush attempted was an effort to respond to some of the political, social and economc trends that Reihan and I discuss in Grand New Party – and those of us who want a reformed conservatism have to recognize Bush’s attempt, and reckon with his failure.

This is by no means a new insight, but it’s one that’s been brought home to me by the looming end of the Bush Era and the struggles of the McCain campaign. Conservatism in the United States faces a series of extremely knotty problems at the moment. How do you restrain the welfare state at a time when the entitlements we have are broadly popular, and yet their design puts them on a glide path to insolvency? How do you respond to the socioeconomic trends – wage stagnation, social immobility, rising health care costs, family breakdown, and so forth – that are slowly undermining support for the Reaganite model of low-tax capitalism? How do you sell socially-conservative ideas to a moderate middle that often perceives social conservatism as intolerant? How do you transform an increasingly white party with a history of benefiting from racially-charged issues into a party that can win majorities in an increasingly multiracial America?  etc.

Me: As we sort of discussed in the bloggingheads session, I think one of the things that many of the New Reformers (I want Yuval to start wearing a cape!), have yet to really grapple with is how Bush was supposed to be their guy. He was the “reformer with results.” He was the guy who advocated not limited government but “strong government.” He was the one who told Fred Barnes that Buckleyite conservatism was no longer relevant. The left is desperate to paint George W. Bush as the personification of pure rightwingery. In every single debate I have with Peter Beinart he insists that Bush was the most doctrinaire conservative ideologue we’ve ever had, well to the Right of Reagan. Sometimes, when I listen to, say, David Brooks I get the sense he agrees.

Suffice it to say, I disagree with that, strongly.

And I think a great many conservatives do as well. One reason why the  Limbaugh faction is so strident on much of this stuff is that they/we gave the reformers a shot under Bush. And look at what it got us. And on an emotional level, I find it understandable. Brooks, Frum and others were very enthusiastic about the Bush administration at one time. Now, the argument sometimes seems like the Reaganites are to blame for innovations they never championed, while the would-be innovators are abandoning ship at precisely the moment the GOP needs all hands on deck. All the while, John McCain is even more of a New Reformer type than Bush. But because some of these folks think Sarah Palin is George W. Bush in a dress, they can’t even back the guy at the top of the ticket in a race against the most leftwing president in — at least — a generation.

I am very sympathetic to what Ross, Ramesh, Yuval & Co. want to do, at least when it comes to the policy details. But if they or others in their camp are going to make an argument for a new “vision thing” (as poppa Bush liked to say), I think it is  incumbent upon the New Reformers (or the New Disraelites as I sometime like to say) to explain  how what they want to do is different from what Bush tried, and why it will get better results. I think there’s a good explanation to be made, but it needs to be made.

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