Jonah Goldberg describes what he thinks is wrong with the Republican Party:
It’s not that the GOP isn’t conservative enough, it’s that it isn’t tactically smart or persuasive enough to move the rest of the nation in a more conservative direction [bold mine-DL]. Moreover, thanks in part to the myth that all that stands between conservatives and total victory is a philosophically pure GOP, party leaders suffer from a debilitating lack of trust — some of it well earned — from the rank and file [bold mine-DL].
The crucial thing missing in the column is any attempt to explain what moving in “a more conservative direction” means. If most Americans are now more skeptical of wars of choice than they were ten years ago, for example, I would say that they have moved in a more conservative direction as I understand the term, but this is almost certainly not what Goldberg means. That is an example of how movement conservatives aren’t just failing to make the best arguments they can, but instead tend to favor policies that are substantively flawed and antithetical to conservative principles. If that’s right, the answer can’t simply be better messaging and tactics. The answer to Republican woes would have to involve substantive changes in what conservatives are trying to achieve.
Movement conservatives certainly have a problem of having far too much confidence in the political efficacy of creating “bold” ideological contrasts, but that is a symptom of a more pervasive obliviousness to the details of the political landscape and long-held mistaken assumptions about the political leanings and preferences of most Americans. That is something that can afflict leaders and the party’s rank-and-file alike. That is something that can’t be fixed by changing tactics or rhetoric. It is also necessary to question and overturn assumptions that may no longer be valid.
If party leaders sometimes deserve not to be trusted, perhaps the “debilitating lack of trust” isn’t solely a product of conservative myth-making. Perhaps it is a result of the leaders’ substantive errors and/or betrayals of principle. Put another way, perhaps current party leaders suffer from a lack of trust because they have done an abysmal job over the last ten years or so and have led their party to one policy or political disaster after another. Party leaders enjoyed an excess of trust from movement conservatives in the early Bush years, but this did not produce sound policy or desirable political results. It enabled Republican leaders to govern badly while also linking conservatives closely with the bad policies they implemented. One of the GOP’s many problems isn’t that its leaders suffer from a lack of trust from their supporters, but rather that they have never been required to face much accountability for their repeated failures.