When I met David Brooks in Washington, he was even more scathing than Frum. Brooks had moved through every important conservative publication — National Review, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the Washington Times, the Weekly Standard — "and now I feel estranged," he said. "I just don't feel it's exciting, I don't feel it's true, fundamentally true." In the eighties, when he was a young movement journalist, the attacks on regulation and the Soviet Union seemed "true." Now most conservatives seem incapable of even acknowledging the central issues of our moment: wage stagnation, inequality, health care, global warming. They are stuck in the past, in the dogma of limited government. Perhaps for that reason, Brooks left movement journalism and, in 2003, became a moderately conservative columnist for the Times. "American conservatives had one defeat, in 2006, but it wasn't a big one," he said. "The big defeat is probably coming, and then the thinking will happen. I have not yet seen the major think tanks reorient themselves, and I don't know if they can." He added, "You go to Capitol Hill — Republican senators know they're fucked. They have that sense. But they don't know what to do. There's a hunger for new policy ideas."The great liberal wave that lasted from the 30s through the 70s was fundamentally based on three things: middle class wage growth, the construction of a social safety net, and the individual rights revolution. Its other pathologies aside, liberalism's big problem by the end of the 70s was that it had essentially won most of these battles. Not all of them. No movement ever wins all its battles. But once you win two-thirds of them, it's hard to sustain the kind of momentum it takes to win the rest.
Conservatives are in the same boat today, except worse. Modern movement conservatism was also fundamentally based on three things: low taxes, anti-communism, and social traditionalism. ("Small government" was never more than a fig leaf.) Today communism is gone (and Islamofascism has failed to rally the troops in the same way), taxes literally can't be lowered any more, and sex-and-gender fundamentalism has become an albatross that's rapidly producing a generation of young voters more repelled by conservatism than any generation since World War II. Even in the late 70s, there were plenty of traditionally liberal goals still to be fought for. Not enough to build a winning coalition around, but still something. Modern conservatives don't even have that. The culture war is pretty much all they have left, and its clock has run out.
They won't be willing to say this during a presidential campaign, but there are at least half a dozen smart Republican senators who understand this and don't really want to go down with the ship. So even if Democrats don't win a filibuster-proof majority in November — as they almost certainly won't — it's likely that there will still be enough survival-inspired GOP senators around to give Barack Obama the votes he needs to make a difference. If that's the case, and if Obama has the courage of his convictions, his first two years could be historic.