I wrote a little on Wednesday about what I described as the uncertain implications of David Brat’s primary victory for the future of a more reform-minded conservatism. For a less uncertain take on the matter, here is David Frum, arguing that the only way to reform the Republican Party is for figures like Eric Cantor – or, I suppose, his successors in the leadership — to take the fight more ruthlessly to the party’s insurgents:
At some point, Republican leaders must recognize that they have a fight on their hands whether they like it or not. If they refuse to join that fight, they will be devoured anyway. If they surrender, they condemn the whole conservative project in America to the destructive leadership of fanatics (and the cynics who make their living by duping fanatics).
This lesson keeps being administered. Republican leaders repeatedly refuse to learn.
The political exemplar most relevant to today’s GOP is not the oft-invoked Ronald Reagan. It is Tony Blair, who revived his party by standing up to its most extreme elements. There is no such leadership yet on the Republican side. If Republicans don’t develop it soon, we might just as well already rename our dysfunctional party the Committee to Elect Hillary Clinton.
It’s fair to say that Frum has taken this view for a long time, while many of us who march (skip? toddle?) under the reformist banner – see, for instance, Yuval Levin in this post on the relationship between the Tea Party and reform conservatism – have been inclined to hope for, and worked toward, some form of synthesis instead, in which the base-versus-establishment war isn’t fought out but somehow transcended. And while I’m not sure that such a synthesis is possible, Brat’s anti-Cantor campaign is actually a useful case study in why it seems so necessary. Here is Ryan Lizza on some of the attack lines Brat used against the House Majority Leader:
In his campaign against Cantor, Brat turned every issue into a morality tale about big business cheating ordinary Americans. He attacked Cantor for supporting the farm bill (“Do those billions of dollars go to the small American farmer? No, they go to huge agribusiness, right? Big business again.”), the flood-insurance bill (“Who does that go to? A lot of the money goes to gazillionaires on both coasts who have homes in nice real-estate locations.”), and the STOCK Act, an effort to stop insider trading by congressmen, which Cantor gutted by including an exception for spouses …
By the end of the campaign, immigration reform, another policy championed by Stephenson in his op-ed, had become Brat’s most visible point of attack against Cantor. But even here, Brat framed the issue within his larger argument about corporate welfare, arguing that the Senate bill would reward big business with a stream of cheap labor at the expense of American workers. (And anyone who followed the debate over the Senate bill knows that it was larded with favors for big corporations.)
So what would it mean for the establishment, as currently constituted and oriented, to “fight back” against this kind of message? Should Cantor have gone to the hustings to defend his role in passing farm bills – some of the most abominable pieces of legislation churned out by business-as-usual politics in D.C.? Should he have talked proudly about how his changes to the STOCK Act improved the bill dramatically? Should he have followed the example of Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, and defended comprehensive immigration reform on the primary trail?
Source: The New York Times | Ross Douthat
Ross Douthat joined The New York Times as an Op-Ed columnist in April 2009. Previously, he was a senior editor at the Atlantic and a blogger for theatlantic.com. He is the author of “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” (Hyperion, 2005) and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of “Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream” (Doubleday, 2008). He is the film critic for National Review.