I just got back from the RGA conference in Miami. And though most of the learning and listening for me happened in sideline conversations, Tim Pawlenty put his finger on why the "traditionalists vs. modernizers" debate David Brooks is trying to foist on us is the wrong one. Pawlenty argues we need to return to our core principles and apply them to 21st century issues. This is essentially Newt's argument too. And 21st century issues doesn't just mean taxestaxestaxes. It means we need to be for broad, sweeping, dramatic free-market solutions to issues like health care and the environment that don't let us get painted as any less visionary or aggressive on those issues.
Let me lay down a few propositions here for discussion and debate.
For the foreseeable future, the GOP will continue to be the party of the Reaganite triumvirate of a strong national defense, free markets, and traditional values. Any effort to displace any part of the coalition will be met by fierce and automatic resistance. When Bush tried to transplant free markets with "buying good policy" on Medicare and education, the patient nearly died on the table from blood type mismatch. With the GOP in the minority, now is not a good time to be throwing parts of our coalition over the side -- but to keep everybody in the fold and add new people.
American elections are by and large not referendums on ideologies. They are contests of personality, optics, and performance in office. This goes the same for when they win or we win -- whether it's 1980, 1994, or 2006/2008. The Democrats did not have to change their ideology to win; they needed to change the charisma level of their standardbearer and needed an economic crisis and a prolonged unpopular war.
Because ideology doesn't matter in elections, and so much of politics depends on ephemeral characteristics like personality and who was in when the economy cycled south, the parties paradoxically have relatively wide latitude to govern ideologically without fear of public backlash once they get in. This is why cries of "socialism" were so ineffective during the campaign, and likewise why Bush got most of what he wanted in his early Presidency, even before 9/11. If Barack Obama is able to adopt far-left policies and make it look like he's making the trains run on time, the country will enter a new liberal era not by virtue of public opinion, but by acquiesence to what appears to be competent governance. In 1993-94, the Clintons tried to move the country to the left and looked incompetent in the process. It was the latter more than the former that opened a door for conservatives in 1994.
There is a relationship between ideology and competence in that ideological governance makes the other side fight harder, while middle of the road policies usually stymie effective opposition (but don't move the ball ideologically). This means that Mitch McConnell must obstruct to increase the likelihood of Obama being seen as ineffective or incompetent (independent of his ideology), but we have to lead with our positive alternatives to inoculate against the inevitable charge that the GOP is too negative.
What does this mean for the current party debate?
It means that the GOP will stick to its traditional principles, while distancing itself from examples of Bush's botched execution. It also means that modernization will happen in other, more useful contexts -- be it in the aggressiveness with which we apply conservatism to a nontraditional issues, revamping how we use technology and modernizing our grassroots efforts, and most crucially, by fielding younger, more inspiring candidates who can transcend petty battles between the "so-cons" and the "fis-cons" by providing a better hope of winning elections and restoring both factions to power.
This is not the United Kingdom, where there is a center-left majority in the population and the party as currently constituted could not possibly have won. In an ideologically flexible America, the political tenor of the times will be determined by the respective positions of the two major parties. If the GOP moves to the center and Democrats stay the left, America will be a center-left country. If the GOP represents the right and Democrats the left, America will be in the center. But if we can continue representing the right, and goad the Democrats into the center, as happened in the '90s, America will be a center-right nation again.