Who will lead the conservative reformation? Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking Republican in the land, continues to look like a leader with many rivals and few followers. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is equally spooked. Having just seen his caucus diminished, he is preparing for his 2014 re-election and no doubt fearing he'll earn a primary opponent on his right if he strikes too conciliatory a pose. Paul Ryan was a decidedly mixed blessing for the Republican ticket in 2012, and will have many advising him to leave Congress early to pursue an unfettered presidential run of his own.
The two most recent Republican presidential nominees are unbeloved by the gonzo wing of the party. John Huntsman already tried and failed to reorient his party in 2012, winning neither affection nor credibility in the process. Mitch Daniels fled politics for Purdue University. Tim Pawlenty is now a lobbyist. How about Jeb Bush? He has the right temperament and tone, but he may still have the wrong last name.
The party's popular media figures -- Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, the Fox News gang -- are almost all contributors to conservative hysteria and an improbable source of remedies. The major think tanks of the right are more credible, but they have manufactured voluminous justifications for old and unpopular policies that benefit the Republican donor class while producing very little intellectual fuel for a conservative renaissance.
So who will lead? Heck if I know. But I'm pretty sure whoever does will be listening to David Frum. For the past few years Frum has been almost single-handedly running the conservative party in exile from the Internet. Frum is the author of the brand spanking new "Why Romney Lost," an e-book that has broken every rapid-response record in publishing history. (Although writing it in advance of Romney's defeat surely eased the deadline pressure.)
In an excerpt published in Newsweek, Frum writes:
The work of developing a conservative policy agenda adequate to the 21st century will require months or even years. It must involve many people. Political work is collaborative work, and although we all have our 10-point plans, the immediate need is for a plan with just this one goal: we must emancipate ourselves from prior mistakes and adapt to contemporary realities. To be a patriot is to love your country as it is. Those who seem to despise half of America will never be trusted to govern any of it. Those who cherish only the country’s past will not be entrusted with its future.
Frum, who was more or less kicked out of the Republican tent when he began questioning some of the loopier assertions that had gained traction inside it, probably isn't getting much of a hearing from his former colleagues this week. But Republican presidential nominees have won the popular vote one time since 1988. After this election, their prospects have never looked gloomier.
Sooner or later, denial will run its course and Republicans will have to reckon with their demons. When they do, Frum and other exiled conservatives will be ready. The exiles don't have the answers Republicans want. But they may have the answers they need.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.
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