Right as Ever
How conservative critics of conservatism are explaining the conservative comeback.
But that's not why the Frums of the world wrung their hands and wrote their manifestos. Yes, they were written with the assumption that the GOP was going to serve more time in detention—and that detention was actually necessary. If the GOP came roaring back by going further to the right, their theory went, that would prove that they didn't understand why they governed so poorly in the first place. They would think that all they needed to do was bang on about tax cuts and the Constitution, and that would not only win the election but make them govern more intelligently.
Of course, to the horror of the smart set, this is exactly what is happening. The conservative base looked at any attempt to answer the Democrats on policy as a cave-in to socialism. When they're making the case for their research, Douthat and Salam acknowledge that reality. But they argue that Republicans have been using their key insights anyway and that the hot rhetoric of the GOP obscures what actually happened.
"I think the way a lot of Republicans are campaigning now—as resolute foes of big government who are also going to save Medicare from the Democrats—suggests that they understand the point of Grand New Party pretty well," says Douthat. They're just taking our insight, that even many conservative voters like the welfare state, and running with it in a cynical rather than a constructive direction."
Salam agrees. "The base of the Republican Party is what we thought it was," he says, "namely whites with economic anxieties. That explains the backlash to Social Security reform and immigration reform under Bush. And the Democrats gave us another opening, because they funded health care reform with Medicare cuts. That's a big validation of Grand New Party's argument."
It's an ingenious argument: We're not wrong. We're just not yet right. After the election, says Frum, after the GOP has recovered in record time, either it's going to have to move away from its campaign rhetoric or it's going to be unable to govern. "What happens in January," Frum says, "when the GOP majority arrives and the Bush tax cuts expire, the U.S. economy has deflationary shock, we don't have a program for pulling the economy out of inflation, and we don't have permission from party supporters or permission from voters to compromise? You have people arriving in office with highly apocalyptic vision of a president but programs they don't know how to execute on their own. It's a formula for crisis."
And crises, of course, often require just the kind of smart thinking that only the smart set can provide. Wherever there's a Tea Party candidate who won by promising to roll back the Progressive Era, there will be the conservative critics they ignored, ready to bail them out.
"The Republicans didn't turn around their own fortunes at all," says Mickey Edwards, a former congressman, now Aspen Institute fellow, who did the lecture circuit for his book Reclaiming Conservatism. "They were bystanders. When I read their new 'Contract from America,' or whatever they're calling it, there's nothing really new there, other than we didn't do a good job last time and need to do better. I don't know what that means." He pauses. "But the first Contract With America was a really dumb thing in the first place."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of David Frum by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press.