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David Brooks, John Thune, and the Death of GOP Reform-ism

I think David Brooks's column about John Thune on Friday tells us a lot about the debate over the GOP's future. Brooks, of course, has been a leading (and compelling) reformist voice for years now. Here's how he summarized the reform agenda in a column just after the 2008 election:

The other camp, the Reformers, argue that the old G.O.P. priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. The reformers tend to believe that American voters will not support a party whose main idea is slashing government. The Reformers propose new policies to address inequality and middle-class economic anxiety. They tend to take global warming seriously. They tend to be intrigued by the way David Cameron has modernized the British Conservative Party.

Brooks lamented the likelihood that Republicans would double down on traditionalism rather than update their philosophy.

In a similar vein, he's also warned against cosmetic makeovers that don't fundamentally reimagine Republicanism. Here, for example, is what he wrote about the flaws of the McCain campaign:

Some of us hoped that by reforming his party, which has grown so unpopular, McCain could prove that he could reform the country.

But McCain never ... articulated a governing philosophy ... [The McCain campaign] was all biography, which was necessary, but it did not clearly point to a new direction for the party or the country.

Which is why it's a little jarring to see Brooks tout Thune so lustily. Thune seems to embody most of what Brooks criticized about the Republican Party several months ago. Only now he singles out these attributes for praise. To wit:

His positions on the issues are unremarkable. He is down-the-line conservative on social, economic and foreign policy matters. What’s notable is the way he talks about the issues and jumps off from them.

He is a gracious and ecumenical legislator, not a combative one. ... Thune also possesses the favored Republican profile du jour: conservative at the roots but pragmatic at the surface.

So Thune is basically a traditional Republican (no new ideas here), except without the hard edges. In fact, Brooks announces at the outset that the case for Thune is pretty superficial, leading with: "If you wanted a Republican with the same general body type and athletic grace as Barack Obama, you’d pick Thune."

What on earth is going on here? Two things, I think. First, reforming a party is just incredibly hard. The entrenched interests are, well, entrenched. They have strong attachments to their worldview, and their powers of self-justification are enormous. Lose an election? We strayed from the Word. Win an election? The people adore us. In the case of Republicans, these entrenched interests are also remarkably effective at punishing dissent. (Pretty much any Republican that's contemplated supporting health care reform has to worry about a Doug Hoffman-type looking over their shoulder.) 

Back when Brooks and his reformist allies (people like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, both of whom I also really respect) first advised reorienting toward working-class economic needs, some of us (okay, me) warned that it would be almost impossible. Given the structure of the party--the wealthy economic libertarians who bankroll it; the nutty, anti-government base that helps pick its nominees--there simply isn't a vehicle for advancing these ideas within the GOP.

Brooks has partially conceded that point. "Traditionalists have the institutions," he wrote in his 2008 post-election column. "Over the past 40 years, the Conservative Old Guard has built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms." But he was optimistic that reformism would eventually win out. "[S]ome 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." 

But a year into the GOP's exile from power what we see is the emergence of the Tea Partiers and Glenn Beck et al. Even if Brooks had steeled himself for a long struggle, the real difficulty of the project may just be dawning on him. (And it's not just Brooks. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, a man Brooks and Douthat and Salam once held up as a model for "Sams Club" Republicanism, sounds a lot like a standard-issue right-winger these days.) 

The second thing to say here is, if you're a reformer grappling with the reality that reform is really hard, maybe the off-year elections persuade you it's not *so* urgent. In his 2008 post-election column, Brooks predicted that Republicans would keep losing for a while. "In short, the Republican Party will probably veer right in the years ahead, and suffer more defeats." That was easy to believe in the dark days of GOP hopelessness--say, between fall of 2006 and early spring of this year. But, as Brooks pointed out Friday, a Thune-style Republican--"conservative at the roots but pragmatic at the surface"--just became governor of Virginia. And Republicans will almost certainly make gains in next year's mid-term elections.

To be fair, Brooks says at the end of the Thune column that "Republicans are still going to have to do root-and-branch renovation if they hope to provide compelling answers to issues like middle-class economic anxiety." I completely agree. But if the David Brookses of the world are touting the John Thunes of the world in the meantime, one wonders where that renovation is going to come from. 

P.S. For what it's worth, Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru, another reformist conservative I admire a lot, were also heartened by Bob McDonnell's win in Virginia. Both deem him consistent with where they think the party needs to go, and both downplay the influence of the Tea Party movement nationally. They make some good points, though I don't find them entirely convincing. Anyway, I'd be curious to hear their thoughts on Thune as presidential candidate.

P.P.S. Here's a profile of Pawlenty I wrote amid the VP chatter last summer. I focused on how his Sam's Club Republicanism was pretty superficial--and that was before he started repudiating his earlier environmentalism and writing Olympia Snowe out of the GOP.