alien & sedition.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
  Looking for the New New Right (Part 2)

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.

Ruffini agrees, arguing that the once-formidable conservative precinct operation has atrophied:
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.

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.
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.

But as I've suggested, organizing technologies and strategies, while important, do not constitute a movement. And Ruffini understands that something's missing:
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).

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.
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.

But whey are these not "Big Ideas?" Why can't they be about something more than "chest-thumping?" Ruffini doesn't say, but let me offer my own exegesis: they're not Big Ideas because they don't transcend the shrinking conservative base. That's not to say that they aren't issues that concern most Americans, but immigration only divides the Republican coalition and the traditional conservative anti-spending line seems both structurally untenable and unlikely to appeal to constituencies beyond the rather narrow fiscal conservative base. Ruffini himself might not agree, at least consciously, but he seems to sense it. Immigration and spending might represent needs unmet by the establishment, but when it comes to building a majority coalition -- or even a unified conservative movement -- from them, Republicans just can't make the math work.

Soren Dayton agrees that immigration won't be a majority-making issue for conservatives. In his analysis, progressives have had room to rebuild their coalition at a rapid clip by "adding and activating ... middle and upper-middle class 'liberals.'" Republicans, on the other hand, find themselves in a strange position: having consolidated their own conservative coalition in 2004, they now find it splintering under the pressure. And the lack of internal consensus is likely to make things very interesting for conservatives over the next couple of years:
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.

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.
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.

Still, while the various ideas Dayton mentions might offer ways forward for conservatives and their party, I've yet to see much sign that any of the candidates are prepared to take them up. If the election is going to be an experiment, then we have to know the hypothesis. So far, all we're seeing is a lot of vacuous chest-thumping.*

What is particularly being avoided is any substantive re-examination of the post-Goldwater conservative assumptions about the role of government. But I'm happy to report that this particular discussion will take a turn in that direction.

*One exception: The Giuliani Hypothesis, which is that there are now circumstances that could permit a candidate to win the Republican nomination even while rejecting the core principles of the religious right.

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