Reining In the G.O.P.'s Parade

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

April 9, 2005

The Republican Party is running into a problem: the conservatism of the American people. Over the past decade, the Republicans have set themselves up as the transformational party. That's fine for a party with big ideals.

But the American people, who can be quite bold when it comes to transforming their personal lives, tend to be temperamentally conservative and cautious when it comes to government. They have a taste for order and a distrust of those who want too much change on too many fronts too quickly.

It's become increasingly clear that the Republicans are bumping into some limits.

First, there's the Terri Schiavo case. Republicans charged boldly forth to preserve her life and were surprised by how few Americans charged along behind them. Fewer than a third of the American people opposed removing her feeding tube.

Being conservative, most Americans believe that decisions should be made at the local level, where people understand the texture of the case. Even many evangelicals, who otherwise embrace the culture of life, grow queasy when politicians in Washington start imposing solutions from afar, based on abstract principles rather than concrete particulars.

Then there is Social Security reform. Republicans set forth with a plan to give people some control over their own retirement accounts. Here, too, Republicans have been surprised by the tepid public support.

Americans understand that there is a big problem, but right now most oppose personal accounts invested in the markets. According to a Wall Street Journal poll this week, a third of Republicans currently oppose them.

Being conservative, many Americans are suspicious of bold government initiatives, especially ones that seem complicated and involve borrowing. Being conservative, they prefer the old and familiar over the new and untried.

Then there is the Tom DeLay situation. Conversations with House Republicans in the past week leave me with one clear impression: If DeLay falls, it will not be because he took questionable trips or put family members on the payroll. It will be because he is anxiety-producing and may become a political liability.

Being conservative, the American people don't want leaders who perpetually play it close to the ethical edge. They don't want leaders who, under threat, lash out wildly at beloved institutions like the judiciary. They don't want leaders whose instinct is always to go out wildly on the attack. They don't want leaders so reckless that even when they know they are living under a microscope, they continue to act in ways that invite controversy.

House Republicans like what DeLay has done, and few have any personal animus toward him, but his aggressiveness makes them - and his own constituents - nervous. Only 39 percent of DeLay's Texas constituents said they would stick with him if he were up for re-election today, a Houston Chronicle survey found.

Then there's the lavish public spending, which offends the conservative sensibility. Then there is the talk of going to the nuclear option on judges' confirmations, which smacks of the radical confrontationalism that led to last decade's government shutdown. All in all, intellectual conservatism is bumping up against dispositional conservatism.

This does not mean good news for Democrats. That party is at risk of going into a death spiral. The Democrats lost white working-class voters by 23 percentage points in the last election, and now the party is being led by people who are guaranteed to alienate those voters even more: the highly educated and secular university-town elites who follow Howard Dean and believe Bush hatred and stridency are the outward signs of righteousness.

According to a Democracy Corps poll, the Democratic Party's standing has dropped eight percentage points since the election.

Nor does it mean that Republicans should abandon their ideas, but it may be time to think about methods. Public opinion is not always right, but it is always worth respecting. And the message the public seems to be sending these days is that there is a need for prudence. The world is risky enough. Leaders who want to change things had better not give off the impression that they love change for its own sake.

The public face of the Republican Party these days should be, when he recovers from minor surgery, the House speaker, Denny Hastert. This is a moment for leaders who seem stolid and secure, a moment for tortoises, not hares.