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A New Deal For the GOP?

I haven't had a chance to get hold of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam's new book, Grand New Party, the latest offering in the "Whither Conservatism?" genre. But I have a pretty good sense of the thrust of the book from reviews , from the highly influential Douthat/Salam Weekly Standard article in 2005 entitled "The Party of Sam's Club," and from Douthat's fine blogging at The Atlantic.com. And as a veteran of many "struggles for the soul of the Democratic Party," it's a relief to spend some time examining the other party's dilemmas.

Grand New Party got its biggest media boost to date with today's David Brooks column in The New York Times, wherein the book is hailed as "the best single roadmap of where the party should and is likely to head."

The argument that the GOP can rebuild an electoral majority by shrugging off its anti-government mentality and strategically accepting key elements of the New Deal/Great Society legacy is not new, though it hasn't been heard in a while (discounting the brief flurry of unfocused talk, much of it from David Brooks himself, about "national greatness conservatism" that accompanied John McCain's 2000 campaign). Indeed, this was the animating idea of the "moderate" or even "liberal" Republicans of yore, who struggled with the conservative movement for control of the GOP for decades, and didn't completely succumb until 1976, 1980, or even 1994, depending on how you measure these things.

Nowadays, we are so accustomed to thinking of the mass base of the GOP as being largely held together by anti-government convictions that it's tough to imagine a more "centrist" brand of conservatism representing what the rank-and-file GOP Republican voter actually wants, as Douthat and Salam argue, with polling data to back them up. But back in the day, pro-government Republicans also claimed a mass base, and thought of conservative movement activists as a narrow, cultish clan out of touch with popular opinion.

By total coincidence, last night I happened to be re-reading portions of Teddy White's classic campaign book, The Making of the President 1960. Here's what White had to say about the last-minute "Draft Rockefeller Movement" at the 1960 Republican National Convention:

[W]hat the Citizens for Rockefeller did achieve in the last week end before the convention, was, in its own terms, a spectacular demonstration of what the citizen spirit can evoke. Within twenty-four hours of the week-end TV appeal, 260,000 pieces of mail had arrived at the Chicago convention, accompanied by an outpouring of telephone calls and telegrams of unprecedented volume. Within fifty-six hours after the appearance of the advertisements, more than a million pieces of mail and telegrams poured into the hotels, special post offices and Convention facilities, to swamp mail delivery, so that by Wednesday of the Convention some hotels were still sorting mail forty-eight hours late.
I mention this long-forgotten incident because the immediate product of this "citizens movement" was the notorious Pact of Fifth Avenue, wherein Richard Nixon accepted a variety of demands for platform modifications (mostly on civil rights and defense policy) in order to head off a Rockefeller candidacy--one in a long series of "betrayals" that fed the nascent conservative movement which four years later awarded Barry Goldwater the presidential nomination. (If you haven't read Rick Perlstein's brilliant account of this uprising, Before the Storm, you should).

To conservatives, Rockefeller was the perfect embodiment of an elite, anti-grass-roots tradition of Eastern Seabord Republicanism, and popular support for him was no more genuine than the manufactured "We Want Willkie!" demonstrations in 1940 that representated an earlier form of the same "betrayal." Indeed, the successful effort to force Gerald Ford to dump the New Yorker as his running-mate in 1976 was perhaps the most satisfying achievement of Ronald Reagan's primary challenge that year.

But looked at from another angle, Rocky (along with other prominent Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s, such as George Romney, Chuck Percy, and Bill Scranton, in a tradition that went back through Ike and Tom Dewey, all the way to Alf Landon) was a Republican "modernizer" who believed, like Douthat and Salam, that the anti-government habits of GOP conservatives bred during the long era of opposition to the New Deal were keeping Republicans from harvesting a vast number of middle-class votes.

Teddy White wasn't alone in viewing pols like Rockefeller as representing a vibrant future-oriented option for the GOP, and not the elitist symbol of surrender to Big Government so familiar in conservative polemics. In the 1960s and much of the 1970s, the Ripon Society, promoting a distinctive blend of social liberalism and market-oriented public-sector activism, was a happenin' place within the Republican Party (if you're really interested, check out Ripon's fine series of post-election analyses published after the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections). And while Richard Nixon's Disraeli-style experiments in public-sector activism may have been motivated by sheer political opportunism, they were as legitimate an expression of a certain brand of Republican philosophy at the time as his better-known pioneering of a harsh and divisive cultural conservatism, and did contribute to his 1972 landslide victory.

I'm not suggesting that Douthat and Salam's prescriptions are simply an updated version of the Ripon Society playbook; for one thing, they are clear about wanting to use public-sector solutions for rigorously conservative social ends, particularly the strengthening of the traditional family. And to the extent that they laud particular politicians, they are people like Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, who won't remind anyone of mandarins like Nelson Rockefeller or Chuck Percy. Rocky did get a lot of votes from the kind of folk who would today shop at Sam's Club, but he probably went slumming at Barney's.

The bigger question is whether Douthat and Salam are offering a course of action for the GOP that has any better prospects for acceptance than that of past Republican "moderates" or "modernizers" or "realists." For all the buzz that this book is going to get, the overwhelming sentiment among the GOP chattering classes is that the contemporary crisis of their party is attributable to insufficient conservatism, and particularly insufficient fidelity to the limited-government ideal. And they are already well-prepared to explain away a McCain defeat this year as attributable to a combination of Bush's fiscal profligacy and incompetence and McCain's inability to excite the conservative base. If anything, most conservatives seem inclined to make items like Social Security privatization, a big no-no to Sam's Club Republicans, an even larger and more central element of their future agenda.

So if you're interested in the future of the GOP, pay some attention to how Grand New Party is received among serious conservatives. My guess is that they are at least two electoral fiascos away from taking Douthat and Salam's advice.