It has been said throughout the media that the Republicans are no longer the "party of ideas." This, of course, presupposes that they ever were. Even so, the activists within the Republican Party have seized on this meme as a call to action, bidding the Republicans to adopt whatever brand of conservativism the activist making the call chooses to support: Huckabites calling for a populist brand of a sort of theocratic "New Deal", Romneyites carrying the torch for Big Business and moderate social issues, Kristolites claiming that if we just bomb a few more people everything will get better, or Palinites trying not to think too hard and just asking Jesus to make it better. Of course none of these are new ideas, but simply all of the old American Conservative factions staking out ground in the coming civil war within the party.
The concept of conservatism as an ideology began in Europe as a reaction toward democratic liberalism and socialism. It supported a strong central monarchy and a society organized around the twin pillars of Christianity and Nationalism. These ideas crystallized into a coherent set of ideals during the 19th Century after the defeat of Napoleon and found their greatest proponent in the great Austrian minister Metternich, who during the Congress of Vienna attempted to enforce peace and order on Europe by establishing an equal balance of power between the states and state suppression of liberalism and socialism within them. European Conservatives generally supported censorship, state supported religion, a strong military, colonialism, traditional social structures, and monarchy. They typically opposed the free market economic system, public schools, secularism or pluralism, legal protection for workers, immigration, and multi-party democracy.
In America, meanwhile, conservatism never really took root as a force in American politics. There was broad agreement on general political values, and with some notable exceptions such as slavery, the United States was a decidedly liberal place. In the 19th Century this meant democracy, free-markets, pluralism, and civil rights, although with the onset of socialism in the middle of the century, it began to take on a more modern character. Truly, America was so dominated by liberalism that the concept of ideology would have been alien to most Americans. This was a pragmatic country where politics hinged on issues rather than ideals, for the ideals were already accepted. While the 1800s were a century of brutal rebellions and fervent ideological battles between liberals, socialists, communists, conservatives, monarchists, democrats, Christians, and secularists, America was never rocked by these ideological struggles. In fact the one great conflict in America during this period hinged on a single issue, slavery, and was a battle fought by two sides each purporting to support the same basic ideology.
It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that the term Conservatism became a powerful intellectual force in American politics. Even now it bears far more in similarity to liberalism than it does to Metternich and the other influential European conservatives of yore. Of course, Conservatism in America is attempting to "conserve" something very different here in the United States than they were in Europe. The primary architect of American Conservatism is William F Buckley, whom we know all too well. In contrast to the statist and monarchial European Conservatism, Buckley was almost an anarchist. He vouched for a minarchist rather than monarchist government, one which subscribed to a mythical ideal that conservatives have since claimed the Constitution really stood for. Rather than hearken to the Church and State as the source for moral and social authority, Buckley consistently referred to personal religion, or our "Judeo-Christian Values", and the free-market as the pillars of society. Buckley took European Conservatism and put a decidedly American spin on it, making it an individualist ideology. This forms the core of American Conservatism.
These conservative ideals never really took hold amongst most Americans. Most people saw their lives improve when the government spread electricity through the TVA or banned child labor. While everyone could agree they didn’t like paying taxes and that people should generally be able to spend their money how they like, the majority of Americans saw nothing wrong with public schools and new public roads. This was a conundrum for Conservatives; they would never get elected on a libertarian platform.
Republicans presented the most obvious candidates as the vehicle of Conservatism. Though they were the old home of big government, with candidates like Abe Lincoln and trust-buster Teddy Roosevelt, Republicans had become lassaiz-faire on the economy in opposition to FDR’s policies. Still, proponents of government investment in infrastructure and education known then as "Rockefeller Republicans" remained due to the steadfast support of many professionals in New England. Buckley and other Conservative intellectuals thus began a steady effort to "Conservatize" the Republican Party, the ultimate expression of which was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater. As we all know, he suffered one of the worst defeats of the 20th Century. Conservatives within the party were able to see that Buckley’s libertarian-esque Conservatism would never be enough to win the party. Sure enough the Republicans nominated a Keynesian in 1968, Nixon, and won due to Nixon’s masterful use of race and fear. Other factors were involved in Nixon’s victory, of course, but Nixon was not particularly different from his Democratic opponent economically. He won as a "culture warrior", blaming liberals and elitists for the nation’s problems, playing on fears stoked by racial, cultural, and societal tensions rampant during the 60s. Conservatives learned this lesson well.
To a true Buckley or Reagan Conservative, social issues are a distant second to economic issues. This has two intimately-related consequences. First, they do not particularly care about the issues that offend the Religious Right. They are neither emboldened nor offended by their ideas. Second, because of this, they don’t really mind adopting some of their positions so long as the Religious Right supports free-market Conservatism. The campaign of Ronald Reagan was the first to truly capitalize on this development, and it worked to perfection. It worked so well, in fact, that almost every Conservative we see today is an intellectual descendant of Ronald Reagan. Like an organism particularly well-adapted to an environment, the Reagan Coalition spread throughout the Republican Party and became the dominant force and by the year 2000 there were hardly any Rockefeller Republicans left.
What we see today fracturing of this coalition. Like society as a whole, the generally well-educated and well-informed Buckley Conservatives are beginning to realize what kind of monster they unleashed in the Religious Right. Palin and Huckabee scare the shit out of them as much as they do us. However, today just as 40 years ago, Buckley’s ideas cannot win an election by themselves, and Conservatives know this. They’re stuck in a Catch-22; if they keep things the same, they face theocracy, if they push Palin away, they face liberalism. We saw many choose the latter while many more chose the former. Still, THIS is what conservatives mean when they say they need "new ideas."
Each faction of the Republican Party sees the coming battle as an opportunity to reintroduce itself to the American people. They want to repackage their ideology, free from the taint of the other side of Modern Conservatism, as something NEW and DIFFERENT. The religious right will fail because they represent an ideal so opposite of historical trends as to be almost completely irrelevant. However, the Buckley-ites represent a more intractable view as they appeal to the fundamental greed in all of us.
Still, within the view of free-market conservatism itself is the fundamental disability for new ideas. The most basic and fundamental tenet of this ideology is an aversion to government, the belief that "government is the problem, not the solution." How, then, can any of their ideas be new? There is no way to discover a new way NOT to do something. It’s a contradiction, and we should address it as such.
UPDATE: To fix my Nixon reference.