The main lesson here may be the populist one. The Tea Party movement is not a Republican movement, or a conservative movement. It is radical, anti-institutional, anti-leadership, antigovernment. It is driven by suspicion of the motives and actions of all leaders, including those in the Republican Party. Cantor's glaringly obvious personal ambition fed those suspicions, but his defeat was a defeat for the broader establishment, which compromises too readily and feeds its own interests first. That attitude, by the way, also is embodied in many of the big donors to candidates and outside groups, meaning it represents an ongoing serious headache for party leaders.
I wrote my post before Cantor's defeat, on the new ideas springing up to give conservatism a new policy foundation, as a vehicle for changing the Republican Party's course. Such a change doesn't have to start with officeholders or party officials. It can instead be led by policy intellectuals identifying with or attached to the party; this was the case with the Democratic Leadership Council and the related Progressive Policy Institute in the 1980s; ideas that flowed from DCL and PPI, and the alliances they built with receptive governors, mayors, and lawmakers, helped provide a mainstream and centrist base for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. Now, a group of conservative intellectuals, many at my own institution, are trying to do the same thing for the Republican Party.
The prime salvo here is the recently released Room to Grow, not a full-fledged book with detailed policies but a set of essays by smart analysts that lay out proposals and ideas across a range of policy areas. David Brooks earlier this week called it "the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American Right has produced this century." That is a bit extravagant, but in fact, Room to Grow is a serious document, with a framework to justify the direction of the ideas and a number of interesting and constructive proposals, some of which (on jobs and the long-term unemployment problem) I have written about before.
I am not going to write either a detailed review of the volume or a detailed critique of many of the ideas, some of which are naturally more constructive and plausible than others. What interests me the most at this point is whether this initiative parallels the efforts of the DLC and PPI, and how the ideas have been embraced, or not, by the policymakers and politicians who will have to buy in to the framework and the specifics to make this more than an academic exercise.
A troubling feature of the volume, underscoring the turbulent waters reflecting in Virginia's 7th Congressional District, is in the almost-obligatory way the various authors have to draw sharp, and strained, contrasts with "the left." In virtually every essay, instead of pointing out how the ideas could form the basis of a new center, there is a caricatured portrait of the left that suggests that the conservative ideas are a 180-degree contrast with the opposition, and not approaches along a continuum that can find that common ground somewhere in or near the middle. In fact, as Jonathan Chait and E.J. Dionne have pointed out, several of the ideas championed in Room to Grow, such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, have been embraced or supported by Barack Obama, who has operated far more as a pragmatic progressive than a radical leftist. That is a reality ignored, and certainly not championed, in the monograph. Drawing the contrast is a useful rhetorical tool, but also suggests that it is a price the authors decided to pay to gain the attention of partisans and ideologues who have no desire to embrace ideas that might possibly be supported by Obama.