David Brooks concludes his column today by predicting that the “Sam’s Club agenda” advocated by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam will eventually triumph in the Republican party. I would not go quite that far, but I think Douthat and Salam have a reason to be optimistic.
The reforms they are advocating are in line with the trajectory of the party over the last few decades. It has become more working-class and more socially conservative. D&S are trying to broaden and deepen this trend. They want the party to expand its appeal among working class social conservatives by promoting their economic interests as well as their moral values (while also holding as many voters of other types as possible). Their project has a greater likelihood of success than if they, say, defined party reform as ditching religious conservatives.
Their ideas have been described as “Clintonian triangulation from the right.” But people often misunderstand that parallel. They think Clinton chose the views of swing voters over those of Democratic voters. In a lot of cases, though, the liberal orthodoxies he abandoned had little support even among rank-and-file Democrats. Democratic voters liked the idea of “ending welfare as we know it.” They liked his slapdown of Sister Souljah’s remarks. Clinton had to push aside or change certain Democratic elites, not to change the worldview of his voting base.
Similarly, the Republican rank-and-file would, in the main, be willing to support the policies that D&S have in mind. A pro-family tax reform, for example, would have more support from those Republican voters than it has yet gotten from the conservative intelligentsia. On some issues the Republican rank-and-file would probably be willing to go further than I think wise. I imagine price controls for drugs would poll well among Republican voters, for example. In my new role as the elder statesman of the young turks–Brooks gave me the position in his column today–I will do my part to prevent populist excesses.
But, to return to my main point, D&S are going with the grain of Republican voters and not against it. That does not mean that they will succeed. It does make their success possible.