Brooks, meanwhile, detects a “more visceral” impulse at work. “There are some folks who live by the culture war and die by the culture war,” he tells me. “And if a bunch of East Coast snobs hate Palin, they should like Palin.” But Brooks, like Frum, sees the internecine fight over McCain’s No. 2 as reflecting a deeper set of ideological fissures in the party. “Basically, the people who are down on Palin and the campaign McCain is running think that it’s time to move beyond Reagan and that we’ve got to go off and do something new,” he explains. “A lot of the people who are defending the campaign and Palin think that we got out of touch with Goldwater and Reagan and we’ve gotta get back to that.”
More than any other Republican doctrinal division—between economic and social conservatives, say, or supply-siders and budget-balancers—the split Brooks describes is fundamental to the future of the GOP and the movement that animates it. The debate has been growing more public (and heated) for some time, especially as the functional definition of conservatism was muddied by George W. Bush. And it accelerated with the nomination of McCain, the most heterodox and idiosyncratic presidential nominee the party has boasted in many moons. But its pointedness, urgency, and decibel level are all sure to spike in the wake of a McCain defeat, especially if the GOP base in Congress is decimated, leaving the party with little more than rump status.
“One thing that will certainly happen is a fundamentalist response,” says Frum. “ ‘If only we had been more consistently conservative, none of this would have happened; there’s still a conservative voting majority out there, and Bush alienated them with his too-centrist policies and various deviations from conservative orthodoxy; McCain was obviously unacceptable; and if the voters turned down ham and eggs, it’s because they wanted double ham and double eggs.’ That will be one view. How fast, how dramatically, and what form the alternative will take—that, no, we have a deeper problem—I can’t predict. But it will come.”
There are, in fact, any number of post-Reagan visions floating around among the eggheads of the GOP. Newt Gingrich has been contending for some time that the party needs to abandon its posture as resolutely anti-government; that it needs to adopt a “pro–good government” stance of managerial competence. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, in their recent book Grand New Party, made a case for a blend of social conservatism and populist economics to appeal to what they call “Sam’s Club voters.” And Brooks cites British Tory party leader David Cameron’s focus on civil society, twinned with an acceptance of a larger state so long as it is fully paid for, as offering a promising example. “Supply-siders blew up the old green-eyeshade Republicanism,” he adds, “but I think that in the minority that’s a natural argument for the party to make.”
The problem, as Brooks is well aware, is that the GOP’s traditionalists will not let go of the ghost of Reagan readily, if at all. Though the conservative movement has lost much of its all-in-this-together coherence in recent years, there remains “a lot of groupthink,” as Brooks sees it. “So that if you’re Chris Buckley, you’re seen as a betrayer, and if that mentality sticks around, things will get quite vicious—because that’s sort of pseudo-Stalinism.”
All of which makes it likely that the race for the GOP nomination in 2012 could be an ugly, fratricidal affair. Frum is not alone is fearing that Palin—who, for all her obvious defects, must be the Republican at this moment with the largest, most ardent fan base in the party—will emerge as one of the front-runners the next time around. The former Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett predicts, indeed, that the Republican primaries will turn into a Palin/Gingrich steel-cage death match (from his lips to God’s ears, I say).
But history suggests that the rebuilding of the party, whether that means a rejuvenation of conservatism or its root-and-branch reformation, will take much longer than a single election cycle. Frum points out that it took the Democrats twelve years after the epochal 1980 election to make a substantial break with the party’s past. “And I think there were probably more people in the Democratic Party in 1980 who were willing to rethink the New Deal than there are Republicans in 2008 who are ready to rethink our party’s first principles,” he says. “So I think it’s going to be a very long, very difficult conversation.”
Few people understand better than Buckley just what that might mean. “My dad kicked off conservatism in 1955, Goldwater ran in 1964, and then Reagan was elected sixteen years after that,” he notes. “So the Republicans could be looking pretty good around, oh, 2032!”
You might think that Buckley is kidding here, but you would be wrong. Conservatism, he thinks, is facing nothing less than an existential crisis. The events of recent days may have given him less of a stake in the outcome than before, but still he offers a friendly word of advice for those who care to listen. “The smart ones in the movement should get together right after the election at the Greenbrier or the Homestead, you know, where they typically have these kinds of get-togethers, and have a long dark night of the soul,” he says. “And I’ll tell you what the conference should be called: Conservatism—What the Fuck?”