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McCain's Problem Isn't His Tactics. It's GOP Ideas.

But while Douthat and Salam deserve credit for alerting fellow conservatives to the perils of staying the course, their embrace of a relatively activist government -- if adopted by the broader movement -- would shift political battles to a playing field on which progressives have a much stronger footing. Once conservatives concede that something like national health insurance is desirable, it becomes hard to discern what will remain of their Reaganite identity. On July 14, Rush Limbaugh himself fulminated on-air about reformers such as Douthat and Salam. "We have some Republicans who seem hell-bent in throwing away the one proven winning formula twice that won 49 states," he said. "If you want to big-tent the Republican Party, go right ahead. You start big-tenting conservatism, and you're going to have it end up meaning nothing."

It's bad enough that opening up the conservative agenda to energetic government would lose Limbaugh. Worse, it would alienate the wealthy business executives and scions who have financed the formidable network of right-wing institutions that includes think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, activist groups such as Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and a plethora of conservative media outlets. That money flowed because its sources benefited directly and enormously from such policies as tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks. Those sugar daddies are unlikely to find much to be enthusiastic about in a Grand New Party, and their money will largely determine whether and how conservatism will transform itself.

David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, tries to resolve the central dilemma confronting conservatives in his own recent book, "Comeback," by having it both ways. On the one hand, he writes: "There are things only government can do, and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of the government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well." But he offers little in the way of concrete ideas for improving government, drawing heavily on familiar, ineffective ideas such as school vouchers and U.N.-bashing. Frum's solution of pouring the old wine into new bottles can't do much good since the wine itself has gone bad.

Traditionally, conservatives have defined themselves as resistant to change, standing "athwart history, yelling Stop," as the late William F. Buckley Jr. famously put it. But right now, conservatives -- including McCain -- are damned if they do change and damned if they don't.

Greg Anrig, vice president of programs at the Century Foundation, is the author of "The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing."

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