Remember, we’ve seen this movie before: the much-needed Republican version of neoliberalism was called, uh, neoconservatism, an uber-intellectual movement that started out hoping to cure the culture though the sheer power of smart innovation and wound up freaking out over just how willing people were to let a sea change in sex mores radically revise the basic premises of society, culture, politics, and economics alike.
The first part is mistaken. Neoliberals and neoconservatives are fairly close to one another ideologically and hold similar views on many policies, but they emerged and have functioned in very different ways, and on the whole the first wave of neoconservatives were not “rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation” in the same way that neoliberals critiqued liberalism while continuing to adhere to it. Rather, they were disillusioned by liberalism in its late ’60s and ’70s manifestations, and they were willing to offer their arguments to conservatives and soon enough to align with them politically. (In their relationship to their new political home and their former allies, first-wave neoconservatives have a lot more in common with party-switching moderate Republicans than with the neoliberals who emerged in the party most of them left behind.) One might say that neoliberalism was created by the liberals who came to some of the same conclusions neoconservatives did about the New Left, but who ultimately did not react politically in the same way. Perhaps I would go as far as saying that first-wave neoconservatives were basically neoliberals who voted for Reagan. The people they most resemble are the Obamacons of 2008. What Carter and McGovern had represented in their view, Bush was for the Obamacons: a cause of deep alienation from and disgust with the party they had previously supported. The neoliberals were those in the Democratic Party who saw the writing on the wall after ’80 and ’84 and were determined to make liberalism competitive again. The two may have been and may have even remained close intellectually in some ways, but one was joining in the movement of realignment that prompted the other’s critique of its own side.
Neoconservatives were rooted in liberalism, or even in more hard-left ideological backgrounds, and eager to preserve what they saw as the proper understanding of American liberalism against what they regarded as more recent distortions. Hence their continued veneration not only of the civil rights movement, with which many of them sympathized or worked, but also of FDR and past Cold War liberals who shared their anticommunism. That is the most generous description I can offer. Over time, neoconservatives remained open to domestic policy reform, and so in this way might be described as still being “eager for innovation” up to a point, but they have become the guardians of a foreign policy and national security status quo inside the party, in part because they were instrumental in creating that status quo. Initially, neoconservatives did not come into the Republican coalition to promote innovation on foreign policy and national security questions, though for a long time before 9/11 they were sharply critical of an establishment they saw as too dominated by realists and liberal internationalists, but they entered the coalition in order to join with those they regarded as the most aggressive anticommunists.
For the most part, the neoconservatives were among the ship-jumpers and party-switchers of their time. In other words, they were exactly what the neoliberals were not. If one expects modern-day neoconservatives to be the source of Republican self-renewal, I submit that this would be like expecting Jesse Jackson to lead the Democrats out of the wilderness in the 1980s. Effectively, they are now in the position in the GOP that the opponents of the neoliberals were in the Democratic Party almost thirty years ago.