The Voice of (youthful) Conservatism?

After William Kristol’s less than stellar performance as a New York Times columnist – perhaps the most influential national perch available to a political writer – the newspaper of record began the search for a new conservative voice.

Their new choice is a gamble: Ross Douthat, a 30-year-old blogger and writer for The Atlantic. Unlike past columnists like Kristol or Brooks or Safire, Douthat does not have a long career of writing, editing or policy advising. Indeed, Douthat is most remarkable for his relative youth. A Harvard Crimson columnist just 7 years ago, Douthat has written a book on his Harvard experience Privilege: Harvard and The Education of the Ruling Class and Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. He approaches conservatism and politics with the fresh perspective of a writer that was just a kid during the Reagan Revolution, a teen during the go-go Clinton years and a college student during the September 11th era.

His first column, entitled “Cheney for President,” is fresh and well-written. (A big change from Kristol, whose prose seemed like an after thought at best.) Douthat argues that the healthiest referendum on the Bush Administration would have been a Cheney campaign for president.

The former Vice President could have argued his case  and defended his record on terrorism, Iraq, and economics; he would have been the voice of “pure conservatism” now espoused by talk radio and Tea Parties.

As a candidate, Cheney would have doubtless been as disciplined and ideologically consistent as McCain was feckless. In debates with Barack Obama, he would have been as cuttingly effective as he was in his encounters with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards in 2000 and 2004 respectively. And when he went down to a landslide loss, the conservative movement might – might! – have been jolted into the kind of rethinking that’s necessary if it hopes to regain power.

But, as Douthat writes, ideological conservatives have not rethought what they are doing wrong. They have learned nothing from their failures over the past 3 years. Instead of blaming the limitations of their own rigid worldviews, they blame the betrayal of moderates. Like rabid revolutionaries reclaiming the purity of the cause, they purge moderates. Their worldview has been calcified in the populist uprising days of 1994.

What the Bush/Palin ideologues need is a direct challenge that will no room for excuse making on their part. (“McCain could have won if only he was more to right!” or “Voters were blinded by Obama’s glitz and celebrity!”) Only when irrefutable proof of their shortcomings is on display will they  admit that their beliefs are increasingly out of step with both reality and American voters. As Douthat smartly points out in his column, a definitive defeat of Dick Cheney (and, therefore, the Bush legacy) would have been the best way to finally put the revolutionary conservatives out of their misery and allow the GOP to adjust to a new world and new problems.

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