The exchange between Patrick Ruffini and Soren Dayton begins with the question of whether the GOP needs a new conservative movement equivalent to the post-Dean campaign grassroots mobilization on the left. Dayton suggests it does.
One of the reasons I haven’t always identified 100% with “the conservative movement” is that said movement as we primarily know it primarily exists in D.C. office buildings and no longer does a lot of grassroots shoeleather work. (Groups like FreedomWorks with actual outside-D.C. presences are largely the exception.) Walk into a student workshop at CPAC, and they’ll still be telling you to read Hayek and Mises, which 1) isn’t very practical, and 2) is pretty much what we’ve been telling our young for 40 years.Ruffini's pessimistic picture is interesting, given how in 2004 Republicans ran proverbial circles around the Democrats when it came to precinct-level organizing in key states like Ohio.
One of the reasons why the Republican Party’s 72 Hour plan was such a revolution was the conservatives hadn’t really done much precinct organizing in a sophisticated fashion since the Goldwater campaign (with the possible exception of the Christian Right in the ’70s and ’80s). Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm is said to be canonical for the Left in building its new progressive infrastructure, but the Right could stand to re-learn the lesson of how campaign manager Cliff White planned the takeover of the Party state-by-state, county-by-county in the years leading up to 1964. Even in losing, the Goldwater campaign paid a great deal of attention to organizing at the precinct level.
Even then, the question is what does a new conservative movement look like? We’ve been running on low taxes, social conservatism, strong defense for thirty years. Are there new issues to rally around? Usually, movements arise because of needs unmet by the establishment. Right now, that’s immigration and spending (though on the latter, the leadership pays lip service to the cause).Ruffini understands how "needs unmet by the establishment" can be the catalyst that turns a potential constituency into a true movement. He also recognizes that, from a conservative perspective, those unmet needs are a solution to the immigration question and, at long last, real limits (even cuts) in government spending.
I’m not sure chest-thumping on immigration and spending are Big Ideas, in the same way that defeating the Soviets or moving to a real market-based economy were Big Ideas. And you kind of need a Big Idea to launch a movement. Bush’s Social Security plan was a Big Idea, but the base showed no signs of being at all invested in it, the Congressional party ran for the hills, and some in the base saw it as shifting the focus away from their own agenda items.
If there is no consensus on where the party goes, then this will probably be decided by a series of experiments involving primaries, national elections, and evolving coalitions in Congress. One upshot of the Goldwater/Reagan model was that the party agreed where to go from there. That’s what Reagan running in 1968, 1976, and 1980 did.I agree with pretty much every word Dayton writes here. I've suggested that the breakdown of authority among the right's party and movement institutions could make the 2008 GOP primary election a genuine battle over ideas -- though I was skeptical that the decay was actually so advanced yet. I'm beginning to change my mind on this last point. But what Dayton says about Thompson is notable: it would be a candidacy based on masking the turmoil within the right.
The question for us is going to be what constituencies or ideas we can add, in a coherent way. And we need to figure out who we have been bleeding and why. There are several ideas floating. One is anti-immigration, which is both wrong and small ball. One is David Brooks’ recent musings. One is Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s "Sam’s Club Republicans". The Bush answer is that we expand the current coalition beyond its white base. It is becoming entirely clear that some nostalgic returning to Reagan will not do it. That is why the Fred Thompson candidacy is both soothing and ultimately losing. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have other answers. Another answer is Mitt Romney’s, which would resemble the Thompson/Reagan strategy with a new image on health care. It is hard to know who he would add, except at the margins. No ideas, just image.