The Agenda

Dave Weigel on Conservative Reformers

Dave Weigel talked to Ross Douthat and yours truly for a Slate article that addressed some of the arguments we made in 2008 and how well they’ve held up. I think Dave is a very knowledgeable and insightful reporter, but there are a few things I’d like to clear up, speaking only for myself:


If the GOP came roaring back by going further to the right, their theory went, that would prove that they didn’t understand why they governed so poorly in the first place. They would think that all they needed to do was bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution, and that would not only win the election but make them govern more intelligently.

Of course, to the horror of the smart set, this is exactly what is happening. The conservative base looked at any attempt to answer the Democrats on policy as a cave-in to socialism. When they’re making the case for their research, Douthat and Salam acknowledge that reality. But they argue that Republicans have been using their key insights anyway and that the hot rhetoric of the GOP obscures what actually happened.

This is a pretty astute characterization in some ways. I do think that conservatives need to do more than “bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution.” But I take tax cuts and the Constitution pretty seriously, and I’m not surprised that this approach will serve Republican candidates in good stead with a midterm electorate that is older, whiter, and more affluent than what we tend to see in a general election. Bob McDonnell’s victory in Virginia, product of a policy-centric campaign and outreach to nontraditional constituencies, strikes me as a better model for a general election than various congressional campaigns. 

I also think — and this is important — that Republicans aren’t using key insights from Grand New Party like a student armed with a cribsheet during a final exam. I’m pretty sure that very, very few Republican strategists read our book. Rather, I think Republican strategists are looking at the same landscape and drawing their own conclusions.

Think of electoral politics as a hydraulic system: if older voters don’t want politicians messing with their Medicare, a political faction that intends to win elections will make that case. 

Dave quotes me later in the piece:

“The base of the Republican Party is what we thought it was,” he says, “namely whites with economic anxieties. That explains the backlash to Social Security reform and immigration reform under Bush. And the Democrats gave us another opening, because they funded health care reform with Medicare cuts. That’s a big validation of Grand New Party’s argument.”

One thing I should make clear is that, as I wrote on this blog many times, I definitely didn’t think the conservative case against the president’s health reform effort should rest on opposing Medicare cuts. Quite the contrary. But I do think the defense of Medicare reflected the realities of the Republican coalition, and it’s something reform-minded conservatives will have to deal with as the burden of public sector medical expenditures continues to grow. 

Since Ross and I wrote Grand New Party, I think we’ve both grown more concerned about the spending burden. We both continue to think that tax expenditures are not a good way to govern. And I’ve certainly grown more interested in nitty-gritty questions of public sector effectiveness.


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