Why There Are No Reformers in the Conservative Comeback

Many predicted a GOP transformation that never happened

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In the wake of the spectacular GOP defeats in 2006 and especially in 2008, many intellectuals and moderates within the party, such as David Frum and Ross Douthat, argued that the Republican Party would have to seriously reconsider its core message or face years in the wilderness. But, with the GOP poised to make a big comeback in the 2010 elections, those years of deep introspection and reshaping never really happened. Republicans made their big comeback without undergoing the transformation that many had called for. Why? And what does it mean for the GOP?

  • Conservative 'Smart Set' Lost to Tea Party  Slate's David Weigel writes, "The conservative movement's smart set, the people who liberals considered serious critics who could remake the right, really had nothing to do with the Republican Party's great comeback. ... 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."
  • Winning an Election Isn't a Comeback  The Washington Post's Ezra Klein points out that just because the GOP is poised to sweep 2010 doesn't mean the party has returned to long-term health. "This happens a lot, of course. Liberals will remember the post-2004 meltdown in Democratic circles. The party had to move right on national security, on economics, on 'family values.' You couldn't be the party of less war and more tolerance and win the heartland." But then Obama won by moving to the left rather than to the right. "At the end of the day, politics is about more than winning elections. The Republican Party remains in intellectual tatters. ... You don't need good ideas to win. But you do need them to govern."
  • The Recession Saved Us  New York Times columnist Ross Douthat told Weigel, "When you have an incumbent president who has launched a bold plan to save the economy, and it hasn't worked and the economy is worse than ever, the opposition doesn't need any plan at all. There's probably not going to be reform right after the GOP wins. Organizations that are highly successful don't make changes rapidly. ... I think the way a lot of Republicans are campaigning now—as resolute foes of big government who are also going to save Medicare from the Democrats—suggests that they understand the point of [my book] Grand New Party pretty well. ... They're just taking our insight, that even many conservative voters like the welfare state, and running with it in a cynical rather than a constructive direction."
  • Parties Never Really Reform  The U.K. Spectator's Alex Massie sighs, "in a sense you can argue that the Republican victory this November will be an unearned triumph. But so, in many ways, were the Democratic Congressional gains in 2006 and (to some extent) 2008. This is an unusual feature of American politics: you don't have to be good or even plausible to do well. ... Regardless of who controls government, the opposition can learn nothing and do nothing and still do well. ... Meanwhile, the Democrats will wait, learning nothing and doing less, for the chance to disappoint when their turn comes again. And so the wheel spins and spins and spins..."
  • We'll Collapse in January  David Frum told Weigel, "What happens in January, when the GOP majority arrives and the Bush tax cuts expire, the U.S. economy has deflationary shock, we don't have a program for pulling the economy out of inflation, and we don't have permission from party supporters or permission from voters to compromise? You have people arriving in office with highly apocalyptic vision of a president but programs they don't know how to execute on their own. It's a formula for crisis."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.