Jacob Heilbrunn

Who Are the New Young Conservatives?

The search is on for the new wave of presidential contenders in the GOP. Today's Washington Post has a lengthy piece on Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose aides have suggested to the National Review that he considers himself presidential timber. So does Rand Paul. And Marco Rubio.

But what about the intellectuals and pundits who have generated the ideas that have animated the GOP over the past decades? Are there any fresh voices and ideas percolating that might act as a shot of iron into what has become a fairly anemic party? The Washington Monthly, that astute chronicler of the nation's capital, features a sprightly look by Ryan Cooper at the rise of what it deems a new and younger generation of reformist conservatives. Cooper, who suggests that, in the wake of the crushing November election loss, a form of glasnost is breaking out in the GOP, contrasts the GOP with the Democratic party in the 1970s. He indicates that the younger conservatives face a steeper path to success. Cooper observes:

It’s two decades after Bill Clinton’s first presidential victory, and there is still no Republican equivalent of the DLC. During last year’s GOP primary, the only candidate who ran as a moderate reformer, Jon Huntsman, garnered almost no party support, quit in disgust, and started advocating for a third party. The one commonality between the two reform periods is that, as with Democrats in the 1970s, the rethinking on the right today, such as it is, is being led by a loose network of reformist writers and policy intellectuals—though the task on the conservative side is more treacherous than it generally was for liberals.

The result is that conservative writers have been more careful to adhere to some pieties, while broaching what would until recently have been considered heretical thoughts enunicated by what Sen. John McCain tried to stamp as "wacko birds."

Who are the conservative writers that Cooper singles out? David Frum and Michael Gerson makes cameos. Overall, Cooper's choices are a somewhat heterogenous lot, ranging from Yuval Levin of National Affairs to Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, from Daniel Larison of the American Conservative to David Brooks of the New York Times. But in many ways that's the point. Doctrinal unanimity is what has led the GOP into its current impasse. Larison is in some ways the most unpredictable member of this gallery of conservative authors. He is aptly described: "An acerbic critic of American interventionism in both parties, Larison has few fans among the GOP’s neoconservative wing. However, his brand of paleoconservatism is on the upswing among the more libertarian-minded Republicans, most recently on display during Rand Paul’s famous filibuster." Cooper may go somewhat astray in suggesting that with "Obama's relative hawkishness," Larison's views could gain greater traction in the GOP. Actually, unless I am misreading him, Larison has at times been complimentary of what he views as Obama's realist proclivities. So the gulf between the paleocons and Obamaites may not be all that great—unless, of course, Obama buckles and intervenes in Syria.

Another canny pick by Cooper is the economist Bruce Bartlett, a vigorous and provocative writer who has not hesitated to upbraid conservatives for failing to stick to their avowed principles. He puts intellection before party. Bartlett broke ranks when he denounced George W. Bush as a phony conservative in his book Imposter. Cooper notes that Bartlett, who served in the Reagan administration in the Treasury Department, "was happily ensconced in the right-wing think tank world until the passage of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit. This led to more and more fierce criticism of President Bush, culminating in Bartlett’s 2005 book Imposter, for which he was fired from his position at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and ostracized from conservative circles."

It is this osctracism that has become the most conspicuous of the conservative orbit. Yes, glasnost in the Soviet Union led to the collapse of the entire enterprise. But in the GOP, it could have a revivifying effect. But only if the party is interested in reviving itself rather than maintaining the old-time faith among a dwindling band of true believers.