Alex Massie

If Dick Cheney had won the Republican nomination last year...

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Ross Douthat's debut column for the New York Times begins with a good joke, designed (one might think) to have the Upper West Side howling that all the talk of young Mr Douthat being a conservative we can do business with must be so much baloney:

Watching Dick Cheney defend the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, it’s been hard to escape the impression that both the Republican Party and the country would be better off today if Cheney, rather than John McCain, had been a candidate for president in 2008.

But Ross makes a persuasive case that the country could have benefitted from a discussion of national security and interrogation policies during the campaign and, vitally, that Cheney's landslide defeat would have awoken the GOP to the fact that the electorate did not decide to elect a Democrat to puish the GOP for having abandoned the comforting rigours of conservative orthodoxy. But that, alas, is the message it has imagined for itself.

And what has this brought? Well, a narrow loss in an upstate New York congressional race in which the Democratic candidate was, of all things, a former investment banker making his political debut in a district that, while close, had historically favoured Republicans. More significantly, it's brought a renewed assualt upon Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. Specter is a "poor" Republican and not much of a conservative and he's in trouble as he fights off a primary challenger from Pat Toomey. This is the race that excites conservatives, while questions about how to recapture once solidly Republican Virginia and Colorado attract little interest at all. There is next to no evidence to suppose that, absent an economic apocalypse, Toomey can win a general election in increasingly-Democratic PA.

But what does that matter? Nothing! Seats in the Senate are for wimps and losers and appeasers and all the rest of it. The GOP is intent upon proving the Seriousness of its Conservatism that it will willingly throw away a seat for a generation to prove a point to other fainthearts in the party.

As a way of cheering yourself up this may be good sport, but it lacks a certain seriousness if reviving an exhausted party and returning to power is your idea of progress. Events may, as they tend to, decree otherwise and it may well be that the Obama administration will crumple but presuming that is not, it seems to me, a wise bet for the GOP to make. And yet there we are. As it happens there is a good fiscal case to be made against the long-term spending plans Obama is proposing. But the hysterical fashion in which too much of the the GOP too often seems to approach policy makes getting that mesage across to people who aren't already true believers more difficult than it need be.

The United States is changing. The GOP can decide whether it will change too or whether it will insist that the old tunes just need to be played more loudly. So, yes, there's something in Ross's suggestion that Candidate Cheney might have helped advance this debate.

Too late, much too late now of course. And of course pickin McCain was - at the time - the most sensible move the GOP could have made last year. It's only in retrospect that Cheney might have been the more useful loser.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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