Layer Cake

I liked Patrick Ruffini's attack on the Right's Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher (enough with the nonsense, right?) fixation. But I also liked Daniel Larison's critique of Ruffini's post. And that's because it's useful to think of the problems facing the American Right in terms of layers of misapprehension.

The first layer is pure denialism - the kind of denial that Rush Limbaugh is practicing when he reads anyone who didn't like Bobby Jindal's speech out of his version of conservatism; the kind of denial that insists the Joe the Plumber gambit was a roaring success and that only snobs would have any problem with Sarah Palin's interview prowess; the kind of denial that boos Tucker Carlson for allowing that the New York Times has good reporters; the kind of denial that thinks the GOP can climb back to power on a tower of tea partys and cracks about volcano monitoring. And every attack on this sort of folly is to be welcomed.

But not every attack goes far enough. And I think Larison is right to see in Ruffini's post an essential faith that if you got rid of all the gimmicks and the nonsense and had sober-minded, eloquent people selling the current Republican message on the merits, the GOP would be "the natural governing party" of these United States. This is the second layer of right-wing misapprehension, which recognizes that conservatism has an image deficit and a seriousness deficit, but doesn't go far enough in allowing that it has a substance deficit as well.

The Right has a messaging problem, yes - but it also has a message problem. It could be America's natural governing party, sure - but as long as its economic agenda looks like Jim DeMint's alternative stimulus, full stop, nothing else to see here, it won't be. Republicans are in deep trouble because the economic meltdown was piled on top of George W. Bush's personal unpopularity - but they would be in some kind of trouble no matter what, because the right-wing message on domestic policy hasn't been resonating with "the people in the middle culturally and economically," who Ruffini rightly identifies as the backbone of any plausible conservative majority, for going on years and years now. The current crisis hasn't created the problem; it's taken an existing problem and throw it into sharp relief.

Recognizing that this problem exists is only the beginning of the argument, obviously. Once you allow that conservatism needs a renovated agenda, it's possible to feud endlessly about what that agenda ought to be. But even getting to that feud, and leaving the layers of misapprehension about conservatism's current prospects behind, would be a worthwhile achievement for the Right.

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

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