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Civil War

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David Brooks’ New York Times column today focuses on the coming rancor between various Republican factions, and predicts a hard right win:

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.

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

This all sounds like a description of a fight for the conservative movement, as opposed to the GOP. And on that front I think Brooks is largely correct;”reformers” simply have no means by which to crack the K-Lo-Hannity-McCarthy hold on the conservative movement, and what it’s deemed to mean to be a conservative in the clique. But the underlying fallacy, I think, is in the assumption of the conservative movements power. After all, the movement loathed John McCain last November, December, and January, but they couldn’t keep him from the Republican nomination. The same is likely to be true in 2012, I think, if the calendar stays the same, and assuming that Obama does not look so unbeatable that only true believer wingnuts actually want to run against him. This could change, structurally, if conservatives really took over and managed to skew theprimary calendar in favor of Southern states, but I doubt very much that the RNC really has that mich leverage over the states to push back primaries in California, New York, New Jersey, and the other areas where McCain won his primary victory.

Similarly, Ross Douthat seems to miss an important point as well:

You might think that a defeat like the one the GOP endured last week would prompt Grover Norquist to argue that the Republican Party needs to ditch its warmongers and its theocrats, or prompt Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council to argue that the GOP needs to ditch its flat-tax obsessives, or prompt the Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo to complain about all those anti-intellectual hicks who loved Sarah Palin. But in practice the incentives probably cut the other way: Nobody wants to fire the first shot against their fellow movementarians, because then everybody else might just close ranks and train their fire in your direction. So the social-conservative activist groups will stand by the economic-conservative activist groups, and so on, lest they all hang separately…

Far be it from me to question Douthat’s understanding of the conservative movement, but having been in the thick of it very recently this seems to be at striking odds with what I remember. Indeed, the reason you would expect the various “factions” in the movement to rally together is because, well because they ll broadly agree with each other’s issues. Tony Perkins and James Dobson will spout low tax rhetoric on demand, Grover Norquist and the Club for Growth can articulate the importance of “family values,” everyone can talk about a “strong national defense,” conservative judges, and on down the line. This was one of the great successes of the movement’s messaging department, in that it successfully mashed all of these “interests” into one set of true beliefs that, broadly speaking, “real conservatives” must broadly stick to. As Brooks outlines above, straying from any point of dogma earns you the label of apostate, and calls into question your conservative credentials. I don’t know if anyone’s actually expecting the various aspects of the movement to go to war, but if they are they’re in for a disappointment. The real thing to watch, I think, is how long the, largely Northeastern, moneyed interests will tolerate movement domination leading to victories forregulatory minded Democrats before they ditch the Cornerites for some combination of Rockefeller Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats. If it ever comes to that, then we actually could see an historic shift in the political framework in this country.

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