The latest effort by "GOP Reformers" is from Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry at the National Review. In Against Despair they try to point the way forward for conservatives after the recent government shutdown debacle.
Kevin Drum lays into it pretty good: Winning Elections is Good, But How Will Republicans Do It? He points out the vast chasm between saying "Let's win elections!" and the winning of actual elections, calling the Lowry and Ponnuru piece "timid" because it lacks any "concrete suggestions" for how this election winning thing is supposed to happen.
That's a valid retort, but this back and forth has happened so many times already it's become rote.
What we are seeing is the whole "analysis" industry, left, right, and center, turning into the mythological "ouroboros", the snake that eats its own tail.
Reformers meet the facts, facts, meet reformers
Around and around we go. Republican's want to win elections, but an increasing percentage of Americans are not old white men. So, reformers and liberals say, the GOP should ditch the Tea Party. But wait! The old white men of the Tea Party are still a huge demographic! The GOP can't abandon those votes and expect to win! So the reformers say: alright, you can be conservative and win elections at the same time! How? By being conservative! But, but... say the liberals, you already tried that… Did we mention the changing demographics?
Broderites Only Thirty Plus Years Behind The Times
At root, the problem is that the word "conservative" is not being used consistently in these discussions. Among the Washington Post, "No Labels", Beltway Broderite, bipartisan fetishist crowd, the word "conservative" means simply "not liberal, in favor of long standing institutions and slow change". Given this definition, members of the High Broderism faith imagine all sorts of policies and positions that "conservative" Tea Party patriots could endorse, many of which would be more or less acceptable to Democrats. The fact that compromise has not been reached along these lines is evidence to the Broderites that Democrats are refusing to agree to reasonable "conservative" compromises.
But "conservative" has not meant what the Broderites think it means since around 1981. Thrity-two years is a long time for such a change to go unnoticed, but the paper of Watergate and Woodward is very, very sure of it's own correctness.
Those of us who don't believe anything we're told on Sunday talk shows know that in current American political discourse, the word "conservative" has come to be synonymous with "principled". And increasingly, it almost doesn't matter what the principle is, as long as it is unpopular (if it's popular, then supporting it is just "populism", which is the antonym of "principled").
Conservative is now defined as "principled"
Once you know to look for it, the synonymous nature of "conservative" and "principled" in the right-wing echo chamber jumps out at you all the time. For example, Ted Cruz held up the nomination of Tom Wheeler to chair the FCC out of concerns that he might limit billionaire's free speech rights by forcing them to do the unconscionable: take credit for the political "speech" that they buy. How does the right-wing internet describe Cruz's efforts on behalf of the rich and powerful?
NO REST FOR PRINCIPLED TED CRUZ: BLOCKS VOTE ON FCC CHAIRMAN OVER POLITICAL SPEECH
How about RedState.com's Erick Erickson's take on fiscal cliff negotiations:
"Third, and most importantly, the GOP lost — and they did lose, here being clubbed to death like a baby seal — because they abandoned long held Republican principles."
The key to being principled in this view is that one takes a stand in the face of opposition. For instance, in Texas, where 1,000 Tea Party (literally!!!) leaders are pushing for David Barton to primary radical right-wing Republican Senator John Cornyn... from the right: Pseudo-Historian for US Senate?
The thing to note here is that Barton seemed to improve his Tea Party street cred by writing a book that was so totally wrong about history, the publisher pulled it off the shelves like so many bottles of cyanide laced Tylenol. Because, you see, that's what being principled is all about: sticking to your guns even when "actual history" says you are wrong!
"Conservatives" are left with a riddle
It turns out that, properly understood, the question: "How do conservatives win elections?" is actually a bit of a riddle.
To win elections, one needs to be popular with a certain percentage of voters: generally more than 50%.
However, one can only be so popular before one ceases to be principled.
Therefore, if conservative = principled and vice versa, there is a logical cap on the possible electoral success of conservatives. As long as every defeat convinces them of the need to get more conservative, we will continue to watch the death of the Republican Party and wait anxiously for the emergence of a new, reality-based opposition to Democrats.