Okay, I had to read it three times to believe it: he means George W. Bush.
[Bruce Bartlett makes] a coherent case, but it's wrong. Bush hasn't abandoned conservativsm; he's modernized and saved it.
Let's deal with this first. I have no use for Bruce Bartlett, any other Republican, or anyone else for that matter, who suddenly realizes, in the last quarter of 2005, that the Bush administration is an abject failure and the country is in deep trouble anywhere you wish to look. The war, the deficit, the economy, the corruption, the cronyism, the criminal ineptitude of Homeland Security--those are things we marched into with eyes wide open. To say now that it's a result of the administration being "insufficiently conservative" adds insult to idiocy. It's the sort of thing cultists say to explain their increased confidence when the world doesn't end on August 23.
But if blaming Bush for the results of everything the Republican party was cheering him for a few months ago rings hollow, what are we to make of Brooks asking what all the fuss is about?
Let's start by remembering where conservatism was before Bush came on the scene. In the late 1990s, after the failure of the government shutdown, conservatism was adrift and bereft of ideas.
Voters preferred Democratic ideas on issue after issue by 20-point margins. The G.O.P.'s foreign policy views were veering toward isolationism, its immigration policy was veering toward nativism, its social conservatism had crossed into censoriousness, and after it became clear that voters didn't want to slash government, its domestic policy had hit a dead end.
It's hard to decide where to begin here. Perhaps with the government shutdown, which occurred not in the late 90s but in late '95, just one year after the Gingrich Revolution. It's difficult to understand how the party of Big Ideas became bereft in less than twelve months. Perhaps because the Ideas were more like Slogans, and the public had already seen the distinction? At any rate it's rather easy to see why Brooks tries to move voter dissatisfaction with Republican ideas a bit further away from the source. Because that makes the Republican bereavement part of a process Brooks is selling.
But the truth is that the modern-day Republican party has always been bereft of ideas, or more precisely, of solutions to the problems it sells over and over with updated packaging. Reagan ran for sixteen years on a single idea--that deficit spending was an abomination. And when he finally got the opportunity he did something about the deficit--he tripled it. The Reagan administration had one Big Idea: Supply Side economics. Not even they believed in it.
So pray tell, Mr. Brooks, with what Big Ideas had George W. Bush reinvigorated the party?
Almost single-handedly, Bush re-connected with the positive and idealistic instincts of middle-class Americans. He did it by recasting conservatism more significantly than anyone had since Ronald Reagan. He rejected the prejudice that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad, and he tried to use government to encourage responsible citizenship and community service. He sought to mobilize government so the children of prisoners can build their lives, so parents can get data to measure their school's performance, so millions of AIDS victims in Africa can live another day, so people around the world can dream of freedom...
This is not to say that Bush's approach to government is fully coherent. The tragedy of the Bush administration is that it never matched its unorthodox governing philosophy with an unorthodox political strategy or an unorthodox management style. With his policies Bush could have built a broad coalition across the right and center of American life. Unfortunately, his political strategy was a base strategy, which led him to reinforce the orthodox divisions between the parties.
I"ve said this many times and I'm going to keep saying it until it becomes standard practice: Vladimir Nabokov once said that "reality" is the only word which should always be surrounded by quotation marks. In terms of American politics, "conservative" should join it.
These guys have gone from hidebound defenders of Red Scare/Goldwater/John Birch Society extremism through Nixonian paranoia, the reality-bending of the early Reagan years and the reality-denial of the later, to the public display of sexual juvenalia over Clinton, which merely set the table for the descent into episodic psychosis. Auditory hallucinations first turned Bush's public incoherence into reasonable speech, then into masterpieces of oratio recta. His staged--clearly, obviously, ham-handedly staged--carrier landing in a Halloween flight suit turned into a fellatio festival. By that point it was already too late. Now that the inevitable collision with reality (we can do without the quotes this time) has left parts scattered everywhere, including a couple thousand dead Americans to no discernable purpose, there's nothing for it but a free-fall into hallucinosis.
There is nothing of "Conservatism" in Brooks' piece. Nothing. Right-Libertarians aren't "conservatives". Religious extremists aren't "conservatives" nor rabid budget-cutters nor the guys who fill the bathtub that government is supposed to drown in. All that's left are a few Straussian corporatists and one guy who writes a fantasy column for the Times Op-Ed pages. It's as if for a whole generation the constant demonization of the word "liberal" eventually exorcized all meaning from political terminology. "Conservatives", for Brooks, are those people who in the future will do things precisely his way, which will finally result in that perfect world we've all been dreaming of.
Y'know, you walk down any city block or into any supermarket and there's a half-dozen people talking to themselves. I've begun to wonder, seriously, if we've lost the ability to distinguish between the raving psychotic and the guy who just has a cell phone. And I open the Sunday Times and start to wonder if maybe they aren't one and the same.