For all of reform conservatives' lofty designs (according, that is, to reform conservatives), Sam Tanenhaus' 7,000-word survey of both the reforms and reformers is best distilled in this 57-word passage:
[T]his is not a hospitable moment for serious-minded intellectuals on the right. The place once claimed in the culture by [Irving] Kristol and William F. Buckley Jr. is now inhabited by Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh and the radio host Laura Ingraham, who is widely credited with mobilizing the troops who expelled Eric Cantor from Congress.
Even Kristol and, more so, Buckley were fighting a rearguard action foredoomed. Buckley, I suspect, well understood that history's advance could not forever be thwarted, no matter how loudly he yelled. The best that he and his fellow strategists could conjure in the 1950s and early '60s was a fusion of conservatism's scattered ideologies--libertarianism, social conservatism, and anti-communism. This synthesis could lift conservatism's electoral prospects--and it did--but the inevitable fading of "the glue" of anti-communism would only re-expose the natural rifts between libertarians and the evangelical right--and it has. Buckley's reinvention of modern conservatism--a conservatism ripped from its Burkean roots--was bound to be obsolete.
Still, in its day it was a powerful force. Without its expressions in National Review, there almost certainly would have been no Goldwater, no New Right, and no Reagan or Gingrich Revolution. Today? How many among the GOP's radical, tea-partying, and above all anti-intellectual base hunt down the latest edition of National Review and National Affairs and their policy articulations by Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin?
The base--especially the primary base--is uninterested in ideas. It is, rather, as Tanenhaus so aptly observes, a base enmeshed in the violent, unthinking culture of "Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh and the radio host Laura Ingraham." For that reason, "reform conservatism" is a joke. Jon Chait's kinder, gentler variation is that reform conservatism is at least less apocalyptic than, say, Glenn Beckism. Accordingly, Chait writes that "Whether or not the reformicons ever compose a workable domestic agenda, they have come to recognize that they cannot run a presidential campaign promising to rescue America from [Obama's] fire and rubble visible only to themselves."
Yet while they might not relish such a presidential campaign, the Foxy-Limbaughesque base will demand one, and its chosen pol will deliver--meaning "reform conservatism" will remain but an unattended flicker in the shadows.