David Brooks has an interesting column today (feels like I say that a lot) about how we're entering an era of activist government thanks to our outsize needs in five broad areas: 1.) social policy (health care in particular), 2.) energy, 3.) human capital, 4.) financial markets, and 5.) infrastructure (especially the transportation system). I completely agree with this, and partly agree with his thesis that western countries tend to entrust their reform projects to conservative leaders, who won't go too far too fast.

I say "partly" because the public sometimes has no choice but to opt for the progressive party if it wants reform. Often the conservative party simply refuses to acknowledge the need for it. (The New Deal was a pretty serious reformist exercise, for example. And one enabled by GOP failures...) At historical moments like this one, there tend to be plenty of members of the conservative party who are doing just fine, and who fiercely resist changes to the status quo.

Which brings me to McCain. Given all the forces pushing toward reform, given McCain's own history of throwing his party overboard to work out deals, given his own TR-like reformist pretensions, given how he's always sought the affirmation of Washington elites, and given how any Republican president--even the ones conservatives start off genuinely excited about, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush--ends up having to make some deals with the devil, how is any conservative reform-skeptic not absolutely frantic at the prospect of a McCain presidency?*

Obviously the alternative (Obama) isn't much better from conservative's point of view. And I know there's still a lot of McCain-skepticism out there among conservatives. But a lot of it seems to have been repressed. I'd expect something more akin to stomach-churning panic at this point.

*These aren't necessarily bad qualities in a president from my perspective. I tend to agree with Jon Chait that they'd limit the downside of a McCain presidency.

Update: Ross Douthat directs me to the discussion Brooks's column has triggered over at The Corner. Suffice it to say, McCain may or may not be freaking conservatives out (though you lean a little more toward the affirmative after consulting those guys), but Brooks certainly is...

--Noam Scheiber