David Brooks: The right will rise again

But not as long as the Traditionalists stand in the way

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It's only been a week since the defeat, but the battle lines have already been drawn in the fight over the future of conservatism. In one camp, there are the Traditionalists, the people who believe conservatives have lost elections because they have strayed from the true creed. George W. Bush was a big-government type who betrayed conservatism. John McCain was a Republican moderate, and his defeat discredits the moderate wing.

To regain power, the Traditionalists argue, the GOP should return to its core ideas: Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration. Rally behind Sarah Palin. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are the most prominent voices in the Traditionalist camp, but there is also the alliance of Old Guard institutions.

For example, a group of Traditionalists met in Virginia last weekend to plot strategy, including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. The attendees were pleased that the election wiped out some of the party's remaining moderates. "There's a sense that the Republicans on Capitol Hill are freer of wobbly-kneed Republicans than they were before the election," the writer R. Emmett Tyrrell told a reporter.

The other camp, the Reformers, argue that the old GOP priorities were fine for the 1970s but need to be modernized for new conditions. They tend to believe that 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.

Moreover, the Reformers say, conservatives must appeal more to Hispanics, independents and younger voters. They cannot continue to insult the sensibilities of the educated class and the entire East and West coasts.

The Reformist view is articulated in books such as "Comeback" by David Frum and "Grand New Party" by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, as well as in the various writings of people like Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Rod Dreher, Peggy Noonan and, at the moderate edge, me.

Only one thing is for sure: In the near term, the Traditionalists are going to win the fight for supremacy in the GOP.

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, they have built up a movement of activist groups, donor networks, think tanks and publicity arms. The reformists 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.

Finally, Traditionalists own the conservative mythology. They see themselves as members of a small, heroic movement marching bravely from the Heartland into the belly of the liberal elite. Anybody who deviates toward the center, who departs from established doctrine, is a coward and a sellout.

This narrative happens to be mostly bogus at this point. Most professional conservatives are lifelong Washingtonians who live comfortably as organization heads, lobbyists and publicists. Their supposed heroism consists of living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with.

But this embattled-movement mythology provides a rationale for crushing dissent, purging deviationists and enforcing doctrinal purity. It has allowed the old leaders to define who is a true conservative and who is not. It has enabled them to maintain control of (an ever more rigid) movement.

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.


David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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