If there's one thing liberal pundits are experts on these days it's the sorry state of conservatism. The airwaves and op-ed pages brim with more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger lamentations on the GOP's failure to get with President Obama's program, the party's inevitable demographic demise and its thralldom to the demonic deities of the right Limbaugh, Beck, Palin.
Such sages as the New York Times' Sam Tanenhaus and Frank Rich insist that the right is out of ideas. After all, the religious dogmatism and "market fundamentalism" of the Bush administration were entirely discredited, leaving the GOP with its intellectual cupboard bare.
"During the two terms of George W. Bush," Tanenhaus declares in his latest book, "conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity."
Even worse than being brain-dead, the right is black-hearted, hating good-and-fair Obama for his skin color and obvious do-goodery.
Predictably, Republican Dede Scozzafava's withdrawal from the congressional race in New York's 23rd District is not only proof the experts are right, but also conveniently a more important story than the Democrats' parlous standing with voters. Don't look at the imploding Democrats. No, let's all titter at the cannibalistic "civil war" on the right.
Frank Rich, gifted psephologist, finds the perfect parallel to the GOP's squabbles in Stalin's murderous purges.
"Though they constantly liken the president to various totalitarian dictators," Rich writes, "it is they who are re-enacting Stalinism in full purge mode." Stalin's "full purge mode" involved the systematized exile and slaughter of hundreds of thousands (not counting his genocide of millions). The GOP's purge has so far caused one very liberal Republican to halt her bid for Congress.
Let me offer a counter-theory, admittedly lacking in such color but making up for it with evidence and consideration of what conservatives actually believe.
After 15 or 20 years of steady moderation, many conservatives think it might be time to give their ideas a try.
Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was promoted as an alternative to traditional conservatism. Bush promised to be a "different kind of Republican," and he kept that promise. He advocated government activism, and he put our money where his mouth was. He federalized education with No Child Left Behind co-sponsored by Teddy Kennedy and oversaw the biggest increase in education spending in history (58 percent faster than inflation), according to the Heritage Foundation, while doing next to nothing to advance the conservative idea known as school choice.
With the prescription drug benefit, he created the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society (Obama is poised to topple that record). Bush increased spending on the National Institutes of Health by 36 percent and international aid by 74 percent, according to Heritage. He oversaw the largest, most porktacular farm bills ever. He signed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, a massive new regulation of Wall Street. His administration defended affirmative action before the Supreme Court.
He pushed amnesty for immigrants, imposed steel tariffs, supported Title IX and signed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation.
Oh, and he, not Obama, initiated the first bailouts and TARP.
Not all of these positions were wrong or indefensible. But the notion that Bush pursued conservative ideas with "dogmatic fixity" is dogmatic nonsense.
Most Democrats were blinded to all of this because of their anger over the Iraq war and an often irrational hatred of Bush. Republicans, meanwhile, defended Bush far more than they would have had it not been for 9/11 and the hysteria of his enemies.
In 2008, the primaries lacked a Bush proxy who could have siphoned off much of the discontent on the right. Moreover, the party made the political calculation that John McCain another unorthodox and inconsistent conservative was the best candidate to beat Obama.
In short, conservatives have had to not only put up with a lot of moderation and ideological flexibility, we've had to endure nearly a decade of taunting from gargoyles insisting that the GOP is run by crazed radicals.
The rank and file might be wrong to want to get back to basics, but I don't think so. With Obama racing to transform America into a European welfare state fueled by terrifying deficit spending, this seems like a good moment to argue for limited government.
Oh, and a little forgiveness, please, for not trusting the judgment of the experts who insist they know what's happening on the racist, paranoid, market-fundamentalist, Stalinist right.