Backwards March

Responding to Brooks' column, Jonah writes:

What Brooks sees as a the base's inability to accept change is often, in reality, a burning desire for change. He mocks the clamor for Fred Thompson to run as an "Authentic Conservative" but he fails to see, or at least credit, the degree to which the call for "Authentic Conservatism" is a rebuke of Bush. Compassionate conservatism was the change. And, I would argue, that change has done lasting damage to conservatism and to the GOP. And so now many want something new. The call for authentic conservatism, fairly or not, is not a call for staying the course.

And, one should recall, David's writing contributed a lot of oxygen to the legitimacy of compassionate conservatism. It has now been rejected by substantial quarters of the GOP and the invocations of Reaganism amount to the base's way of saying the experiment failed.

I think this is largely right as analysis, and it's precisely why the Right is in such difficulties. Reaganism ran out of steam in the late 1990s: It had succeeded on many fronts, been co-opted by the Democrats on others, and run up against a wall of pro-welfare state public opinion on still others. "Compassionate conservatism" was an attempt to address the new political landscape by promising to reform government in a conservative direction, rather than simply slashing it to the bone; it was a terrible slogan, to my mind, but the underlying idea was basically a good one. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration was a disaster on a variety of fronts, and even though the substance of compassionate conservatism was arguably the least of the Administration's problems, Bush's deviations from small-government principle have provided a convenient scapegoat for conservatives looking to explain what's gone wrong in the last six years without addressing, say, why the public rejected Social Security reform or why Iraq has been such a disaster.

As a result, conservatives who think the movement needs to adapt to a post-Reaganite landscape, rather than hunkering down and getting back to basics, are deemed to have been discredited by George W. Bush, and the prevailing attitude on the right is that the way out of the current mess is to commit the GOP to a platform of cutting government waste, extending Bush's tax cuts, and talking really, really tough about the war on terror and Iran. The result is that the Right is back where it was in the late 1990s, headed toward what Chris Caldwell has termed "Southern captivity", and convinced that going in this direction constitutes a change for the better.

Maybe it does. As Jonah says, conservatives and Republicans aren't the same thing, the conservative movement doesn't exist just to win elections, and maybe the lesson of the Bush years is that there's no compromise with Reaganite purism - though of course Reagan himself was no purist - that's worth the price, and no conservative reformism that won't shade into corruption and pork. Better to go into the wilderness, in this argument, than even consider trying to build on some of George W. Bush's political successes - they're too tainted to touch.

I have a feeling that eight years of President Obama will change some minds on this count, but I guess we'll find out.