CPAC And How Conservatives Are Killing Republican Revival

We’re told the Republican Party is in the midst of internal upheaval, that conservative intellectuals are waging a fierce battle over their party’s future. It’d be great if that were true.

But if this intellectual free-for-all is having an effect on the party, it’s hard to spot without a microscope. Reformist conservative intellectuals admit that Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget is merely a tired reiteration of his previous offerings. The party’s great new hope, Sen. Ted Cruz, is tilting at the Obamacare repeal windmill as opposed to offering a viable alternative health care vision. And CPAC, the marquee conservative conference that began yesterday, offers Sarah Palin and Donald Trump as star speakers.

The sad truth is that the reformers are outgunned, outnumbered, and outfunded. There’s no serious constituency with clout that believes the GOP needs to substantively reform its political institutions. Until that changes, the talk from conservative thinkers is just that.

Consider how the Republican Party, which once claimed Dwight “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower as its standard bearer, became captured by the conservative movement. Many use the words “Republican” and “conservative” interchangeably today, but that would have seemed bizarre just forty short years ago. The modern conservative movement began as, odd as this may seem to progressives, an anti-establishment movement: William F. Buckley Jr. and the National Review crowd were rebelling against the perception of a milquetoast GOP. What we now understand as modern conservatism’s guiding principles (economic libertarianism, a concern with preserving “traditional” social mores, and foreign policy hawkery) were originally formulated as challenges to the contemporary Republican consensus.

But modern conservatism didn’t take over the Republican Party by sheer force of Buckley’s will. It took a cadre of politicians like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, support from the then-young Heritage Foundation, and a major on-the-ground organizing effort to uproot the GOP old guard. As Jonathan Yardley put it in a review of the widely acclaimed history of moderate Republicanism Rule and Ruin, “one of the central things about moderates — and one of the best things — is that they are, well, moderate. Whether they call themselves Republicans, Democrats or independents, they don’t get up on soapboxes, they don’t spend six hours a day glued to Fox News, and they don’t pour out in overwhelming numbers to vote in party primaries. This last factor, more than anything else, is what explains the demise of Republican moderation and the victory (for now, at least) of Republican extremism.”

By my count, that history suggests there are four critical battlegrounds for GOP reform: political leaders, Republican-aligned think tanks, the conservative press, and grassroots movements (assuming, reasonably enough, that capitalists and lobbyists aren’t the reform-minded types). The problem, as a quick survey of the current state of these four areas will attest to, is that there’s no faction any of those sectors influential enough to spearheading a change in the Republican Party’s political instincts or policy preferences:

Political leaders: While there’s ideological conflict among elected Republicans, the issue appears to whether the status quo leadership is ideologically rigid enough for the insurgent’s liking. Take Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mark Lee — who are described in a National Review profile as “key defenders of liberty and the Constitution,” stepping up “[a]t a time when the Republican party, and the conservative moment in general… is still reeling from an electoral drubbing in November and lacks coherent leadership.” These three Senators all propose pulling the GOP further to the right of the American public; all three, for example, think the wildly popular Violence Against Women Act is unconstitutional. All of them also embody the GOP’s bad intellectual habits and ideological rigidity. Cruz has a proven record of McCarthyite intellectual dishonsty. Paul isn’t the challenge to GOP orthodoxy on civil liberties and foreign policy that people say he is, and he has a particularly revanchist economic agenda. Lee admitted to using the threat of default on our debt in an attempt to rewrite the Constitution along radically federalist lines. The anti-establishment contingent in the House is famously to Speaker Boehner’s obstructionist right. And while there are a few Governors who are marginally more intellectually alive, none of them appear to command the support of a major national reform movement. The Republicans challenging the party leadership are symptoms of the problems GOP reformers are diagnosing, not its cure. The most important source of institutional juice in translating the reform debate into political change looks to be, if anything, militating against reform.

Think tanks: Aside from the libertarian Cato Institue, whose influence among conservatives is almost definitionally circumscribed by its ideology, the two major conservative institutions are the aforementioned Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Heritage’s new President is former Senator Jim DeMint, famous for being one of the Senate’s hardest of hard-liners and helping fund primary challenges to Republicans who didn’t toe the party line. Conservative pundit Jennifer Rubin (not known for her intellectual independence) wrote that by hiring DeMint, “Heritage, to a greater extent than ever before, becomes a political instrument in service of extremism.” AEI’s President, Arthur Brooks, believes President Obama’s policy views are functionally identical to Marxism and that 92 percent of economists “are not supporters of free enterprise.” The institution’s idea of bipartisan reform on foreign policy is Joe Lieberman, who, of course, already agrees with neoconservative orthodoxy.

Conservative publications: If one wanted to make the case for optimism, conservative publications would be the place to start. Most major publications have at least a handful of intellectually serious and/or reform-minded writers: National Review, despite often hewing to the party line editorially, is the bright spot here, employing challenging thinkers like Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Yuval Levin. Conservative writers at more mainstream publications, like Ross Douthat, Conor Friedersdorf, and David Frum, are all persuasive critics of the party’s status quo. And a young publication (by magazine standards), The American Conservative, is a vital clearinghouse for critiques of the GOP and ideas for its transformation (full disclosure: they’ve even gone so far in the name of intellectual diversity as to have published me). However, Fox News still dominates the conservative information infrastructure alongside radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin. New popular outlets like The Daily Caller and Breitbart News have notoriously low, ideologically driven journalistic standards. Sadly, the more reflective publications can’t seem to get the signal through this noise: Jonathan Martin reports that “there is virtually no evidence that these impassioned appeals for change are being listened to by the audience that matters — Republican elected officials.”

Grassroots movements: The big force here is obviously the Tea Party. While the initial impression was that the Tea Party was a libertarian movement, a view some libertarians still hold, the evidence that the Tea Party isn’t offering an alternative vision to the status quo GOP is mounting. Polling data suggests Tea Party members hold social views virtually identical to those of conservative Republicans, leading a group of Harvard scholars to conclude “the Tea Party is a new incarnation of longstanding strands in US conservatism.” This perception is borne out by the candidates it supports; the head of the Tea Party Caucus in the House is Michele Bachmann, and Ted Cruz is one of the Senators most closely identified with the movement. If anything, this suggests that the Tea Party has been an anti-reform voice, as they’ve been active in supporting the sort of leader that’s holding reformers back; that’s why Brigitte Nacos, an expert on the Tea Party at Columbia University, predicted that “there will be something like a civil war within the Republican Party, with the extreme right of Tea Partyers and the Christian right on one side, and those who were formerly the GOP’s mainstream on the other.”

So the GOP reformers have a daunting task ahead of them: they need to expand out from their media base and start influencing conservatives in the grassroots rank-and-file, think tanks, and the political class if they want to replicate the initial conservative movement’s success in transforming the Republican Party.

I’ll be tracking this effort at CPAC for TP Ideas, drawing out the best policy ideas and most interesting portents of change inside the conservative movement from its annual showcase to see if this gloomy situation might be brightening a bit. The first report should drop later today; stay tuned!