Jamelle’s post yesterday stimulated some thoughts in my head, not only about the question of why movement conservatives need to recognize that the Bush Administration’s failures are attributable to conservatism, but also about how Republicans can more quickly return to being a competent governing party.
The other day, I struggled to think of a single unifying characteristic for the various strains of dissident/reform conservatism and blamed the lack of such a characteristic for the fact that the conservative agenda nowadays amounts to little more than “we’re not liberals.” Beyond that, though, what unifies these strains of dissident conservatism is that the dissidents are almost all drawn from the conservative elite: they’re wonks, not foot soldiers. Moreover, it increasingly seems that what unifies the old conservative wonk class is that they’re almost all dissidents. The set of non-wonkish dissident conservatives is close to null, as is the set of wonkish conservatives who maintain close ties to the base.
One area where Freddie has taken a bit of heat is for going after so-called reform conservatives for being unwilling to try to fix the problems with conservatism. For a long while, I thought this heat was deserved and that Freddie was being quite unfair to people who were clearly trying to do exactly that. And while two Ordinary Gentlemen do not a trend make, I read enough liberal blogs to see that their opinions are shared by quite a few on the Left, so while liberals may not have the disdain for the reformers that they have for the hardcore movement types, the reformers are hardly respected by liberals.
Meanwhile, the hardcore movement conservatives truly cannot stand the reformers, who they view as RINOS at best and traitors at worst. This animosity is even understandable since, to the extent the reformers even try to interact with the base, it is more often than not to criticize it for extremism in rhetoric or style.
This question has perplexed me for months: how is it possible for a group of well-intentioned conservative wonks to be so reviled by the Left, despite sincerely opposing the worst of the Right’s extremism and attempting to make the Right serious about governing again, and the Right, despite sincerely opposing most all of the Left’s agenda? It’s not as if these people are just squishy centrists and moderates – they almost always have a pretty clear set of principles underlying their actions.
Reading Jamelle’ s post, though, the answer finally became clear: the conservative wonks simply aren’t doing their jobs. What they are doing is picking apart liberal proposals, picking apart conservative proposals, attacking the low-hanging fruit of conservative extremism, and occasionally making suggestions to liberals on ways of either improving liberal proposals or making those proposals more palatable to conservatives. What they are not doing, and largely are not even trying to do, is to drive the GOP agenda. They are, in effect, content to leave the GOP agenda as little more than “vote no on everything” and tear down whatever the liberals do.
“But we have all these great ideas if liberals would only listen to us” comes the inevitable response. Which is all well and good up until you realize that liberals aren’t very interested in ideas that they can’t pass. Conservative wonks think health care reform would work better if it were individualized and decentralized? Great, say the liberals, so do many of us; now come back to us when you can deliver some Republican votes that will overcome the loss of support from the unions that this will entail.
And so the conservative wonks go home with their tails between their legs, and drop the subject just long enough to write op-eds about why the Dem health care proposals are terrible, awful, no good, very bad health care reform. Perhaps they contact Republican politicians and feed them some talking points for opposing the Dem health care proposals.
Then, when they hear someone on talk radio going too far with their opposition, or some Tea Party protester decrying the Dems’ “Nazi” health care reform, their sense of shame leads them to launch a rhetorical avalanche against those who would do such things.
What they do not do, though, is try to convince that talk radio host that although the Dems’ health care proposals are bad, health care reform is urgent and conservatives need to push hard for good reform rather than simply opposing the leading Dem proposal. They do not get on the phone with Republican Congressmen and Senators and convince them to get serious about reforming health care; that health care reform is urgent and is going to pass soon one way or another, and the only way that reform will be good is if that Senator breaks ranks and actually tries to put together a voting bloc for better reform.
Compare this to the state of affairs on the Left as between its wonks and activist base:
But the intra-progressive debate is helping generate the best of all possible worlds. It’s far more likely now that a public option of some kind will be fought for and included. At the same time, it’s more likely that activist liberals will support a bill that ultimately includes a modified public option plan such as an “opt-out,” rather than refusing to budge an inch.
Liberal wonks are not going out of their way to antagonize their base, calling them names, questioning their intelligence, and attacking their integrity. The liberal base meanwhile does not go out of its way to antagonize its wonks, calling them names, questioning their loyalties, and attacking their integrity. Instead what they are doing is lobbying each other, with the wonks making the base better informed about what should and should not be important, and the base making the wonks better informed about what is and is not politically possible.
In the context of the health care debate, it is almost certainly too late for conservative wonks to garner the kind of support from the conservative base that is necessary to affect the final structure of health care reform. But they also need to keep in mind that the GOP will not be out of power forever, and when it returns to power, they need to have support in place for some kind of a governing agenda and philosophy if they wish the GOP to govern well. This means repairing ties with the base rather than antagonizing it; it means building intramovement coalitions for specific types of reform; and most importantly it means informing both the base and GOP politicians about existing problems and how those problems should be solved rather than allowing them to pretend those problems don’t exist or that there are no solutions to those problems.
Inevitably, some of these reforms and issues will catch the base’s imagination, while others will not. The proponents of those reforms that fail to catch the base’s imagination will thus discover that it is they who are the odd men out if the coalition is to return to some kind of ideological coherence. This may be unfortunate for that group, but it will be fortunate for just about everyone else as the Reagan coalition gets updated to face the issues of today rather than 1980. Should the wonks choose to remain paralyzed in their willingness to engage their own base and to risk angering another leg of that outdated coalition, they will only ensure that Republicans remain incapable of governing on a national level for a longer time than is necessary.
UPDATE: Interestingly enough, it seems the recently condemned-to-the-innermost-circle-of-hell Matthew Latimer was sailing these waters just the other day:
Our Republican Party is gripped with a common Washington affliction: consultant fever. This is a very contagious, bipartisan disease. It causes those in its grip to advance themselves by resorting to tactics and theater rather than the much harder work of explaining to people why our ideas are better. Over the past several years, we’ve let this disease become chronic in the Republican Party. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Via Jon Henke on Twitter.
UPDATE II: Please also check out von at Obsidian Wings, including this particularly pertinent point he makes in the comments:
There is no visible Republican plan that Republicans routinely talk up. Consequently, there’s nothing for me to talk up (assuming I liked what the Republicans were offering).
Contrast this to 1993, when Republicans were also out of power: The Contract with America was critical to Republican recovery.