David Brooks Admits Defeat, For Now

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As the election came to a close, I wrote a story about the dismal aftermath for the GOP: A leaderless party, a battered brand, an issue set that seems outmoded, an abandonment of bedrock principles, etc. The list goes on, and depending on which Republican you are talking to rather varied. On one side, there are those who believe the solution for the Republican Party is to return to conservative basics. On the other side, there are those who think the Republican Party must become something new.

Today, in the New York Times, David Brooks, who is one of the “something new” crowd, lays out these two warring factions, and then admits defeat.

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.

Brooks is dead on in a macro sense. But there are two things he leaves out. First, all this intraparty squabbling will be history if and when the Democrats start making mistakes. Think back to 2003 or 2005, when Democrats were in dissarray. They were healed less by any new policy paper than by repeated Republican catastrophes. Second, there is considerable room for middle ground. Even among those in the tradtionalist camp, people like Newt Gingrich and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, there is a considerable hunger for new ideas and policies that will address voter’s current concerns, without upsetting the old conservative coalition. The real fight to come is over this middle ground.