Moderate Republicans, Reformist Conservatives, and Other Animals

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A reader writes:

I read your posting on Limbaugh's monologue. There is one point I do not understand. You seem to claim that a bad campaign by McCain justifies moderate Republicans jumping ship. I do not understand why that in anyway justifies the actions of moderate Republicans in endorsing Obama after the Republican party nominated their candidate John McCain over the objections of conservatives. Even if the dubious claim that McCain ran a "substance-free campaign" is true, it should not cause anyone who seriously follows politics into believing that somehow Obama is more in tune with moderate/ centrist/"reformist" Republicans than John McCain. This is simply style over substance at its worst. The fact that a number of "reformist conservatives" have so endorsed Obama suggests a dangerous level of opportunism on the part of these people. It is reasonable for more tradiutional conservatives to conclude on the basis of this action that at least these Obama-endorsing reformist are not to be trusted by any type of conservatives when rebuilding the movement post-McCain. (I am curious. Would you agree with Limbaugh on this at least?)

I would agree that some of the once-Republican figures who have endorsed Obama have done so out of opportunism and/or a desire for attention, yes: In this category I would place figures like Scott McClellan (whose photo appears next to the word "opportunism" in the dictionary, I believe) and Ken Adelman (last seen disavowing any responsibility for the nasty consequences of a war that he loudly supported), among others. Others have endorsed him  for somewhat more principled reasons: If you have the politics of, say, a Colin Powell or a William Weld or a Christopher Hitchens, there's a case to be made that you basically belong in today's Democratic Party anyway. And others still have endorsed him for reasons too tangled, I think, to be applicable to anyone who wasn't born and raised a Buckley.

And no, I wouldn't trust the rebuilding of conservatism to any of these people. But nobody was going to entrust it to them anyway: Scott McClellan, Bill Weld and Christopher Hitchens were not going to be the architects of a new Republican majority in any world you care to imagine. Indeed, you could even flat-out say "good riddance" to them, as Limbaugh wants to do ... if you had a plan for finding converts to conservatism somewhere else. But Limbaugh doesn't have a plan, and what he and others are doing is using the McClellans of the world to pre-emptively discredit anyone else who thinks the GOP needs to reform, rather than retrench. You moderate Republicans, he says: You wanted John McCain, you got him, and now you're all jumping ship! But everybody who disagrees with Limbaugh isn't jumping ship, and going forward the Right doesn't just face a binary choice between Limbaugh's conservatism and McCain's "moderate Republicanism," let alone between Limbaugh and Bill Weld.

One alternative path forward - and only one, out of many - is a reformist conservatism that tries to craft a new right-of-center domestic-policy agenda, one better attuned than the current Republican agenda to the set of challenges facing middle and working-class America. This sort of reformism is associated with a group of writers that would include people like Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum, Yuval Levin, David Brooks, Reihan and myself - and, if you cast a wider net, perhaps figures ranging from Jim Manzi to Rod Dreher to Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner. As the list suggests, it's not an ideologically coherent group by any means, with divergent views on issues ranging from abortion (Ramesh and I are pro-life, Frum and Brooks are pro-choice) to foreign policy (where I'm an outlier, being more in the realist than the neoconservative camp) to the wisdom of choosing Sarah Palin as John McCain's veep. And even on the basic domestic-policy questions there's considerable disagreement. Frum, Ramesh and I are more restrictionist on immigration than, say, Brooks and Gerson. Frum favors a carbon tax, Manzi opposes it. Ramesh is to my right on size-of-government questions, while David Brooks is probably well to my left. Ramesh had some unkind things to say about David Frum's book. I had some unkind things to say about Michael Gerson's. Etc.

But with the possible exception of David Brooks - who's the most centrist, as opposed to rightist, person on the list - I'm pretty sure that nobody in this group is going to be voting for Barack Obama. And I'm quite sure that none of the strategies and policy proposals that we've batted around, individually or collectively, have been discredited by the McCain campaign's various struggles - and especially not by McCain's failure to keep Scott McClellan and Bill Weld, of all people, in the Republican fold. Our ideas may, in fact, be terrible, un-conservative, political poison, or all of the above. But they haven't been tried and found wanting; to date, they've been largely left untried.

The bigger point (and I know I'm a broken record here) is this. Whatever direction you think conservatism should be going in from here on out, the absolute worst thing the members of a losing political movement can do - if they ever want to win again, at least - is attempt to pre-emptively close off debate about the movement's future. Conservatives need to have arguments, not promise excommunications, or else pretty soon there won't be very much worth arguing over.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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