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David Brooks And The Plight Of Reformist Republicans

Earlier this year, in a back and forth with Ross Douthat, I argued that reformist conservatives like him and his Grand New Party co-author Reihan Salam had exactly the right ideas for appealing to working and middle-class voters, but that the GOP would never adopt them--at least not in its current form--because the party was fundamentally oriented toward cutting taxes. And, of course, constant tax-cutting is basically incompatible with the policy program they lay out (addressing income volatility, reforming health care, etc.). I suggested that the GOP would basically cease to exist as we know it before it moved in this direction.

At the time, a lot of reformist types dismissed my concerns, saying that political parties were ultimately about winning, and that if Republicans kept losing under the current model, they'd eventually embrace these new ideas. At heart, they took issue with my claim that the GOP's problem was structural--that the party couldn't reorient itself without some massive overhaul.

Today, however, David Brooks, a self-described reformer (who used to be somewhat optimistic about the near-term prospects for reformist conservatism), comes pretty close to making my case. Brooks writes:

The debate between the camps is heating up. Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the G.O.P.

They are going to win, first, because Congressional Republicans are predominantly Traditionalists. Republicans from the coasts and the upper Midwest are largely gone. Among the remaining members, the popular view is that Republicans have been losing because they haven’t been conservative enough.

Second, Traditionalists have the institutions. Over the past 40 years, the Conservative Old Guard has built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms. The reformists, on the other hand, have no institutions.

There is not yet an effective Republican Leadership Council to nurture modernizing conservative ideas. There is no moderate Club for Growth, supporting centrist Republicans. The Public Interest, which used to publish an array of public policy ideas, has closed. Reformist Republican donors don’t seem to exist. Any publication or think tank that headed in an explicitly reformist direction would be pummeled by its financial backers. National candidates who begin with reformist records — Giuliani, Romney or McCain — immediately tack right to be acceptable to the power base. ...

Which is to say, the GOP, as currently structured, is basically inhospitable to the kinds of reformist ideas that Ross and Reihan and Brooks favor. 

Now, the reformers might argue that their original response to my critique still stands--that losing will eventually provoke a change. To which I'd say two things: 1.) The GOP's been doing a lot of losing lately and there's no sign of change in sight. (As Brooks points out, the outlook has only gotten grimmer.) In the long-run we're all dead and all that. 2.) It's now clear that strategic change can't come without structural change. I think Brooks says it best in the final paragraph of his column:

In short, the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats. Then, finally, some new Reformist donors and organizers will emerge. They will build new institutions, new structures and new ideas, and the cycle of conservative ascendance will begin again.

That sounds a long way off to me.

--Noam Scheiber