This problem is not, repeat not, a matter of conservatives needing to abandon their core convictions in order to win elections, as right-of-center reformers are often accused of doing. Rather, it's a matter of conservatives needing to apply their core convictions to questions like "how do we mitigate the worst effects of climate change?" and "how do we modernize our infrastructure?" and "how do we encourage excellence and competition within our public school bureaucracy?" instead of just letting liberals completely monopolize these debates, while the Right talks about porkbusting and not much else.This attempt to rekindle the faith is touching. But it's no longer possible to sustain the set of lies that conservatives have been telling about their core principles. The mythological conservative, firm believer in market principles and their application to sound policy formation demonstrably does not exist. The people who believe that sort of thing are called economists, and reside all across the ideological spectrum, although with their reflexive belief in market processes generally lean somewhat to the right of center. Sometimes their ideas are hijacked by conservatives; that's pretty much what AEI is about. But when they, say, advocate a voucher system of education, that is no more about a voucher system for education as is an anti-abortion stance about abortion. The former is about breaking the teachers unions. The latter is about the central goal of the conservative program: the restoration of the supremacy of the white (straight) male.
We went through a version of this during the Reagan administration, when the manager of the Office of Management and Budget styled himself a libertarian. The oxymoronic nature of that stylization seemed to escape most observers, but there it was.
At this point, though, it's impossible to do anything other than echo Chico Marx: "Who you gonna believe? Me? Or your own lying eyes?" Given the keys to the castle, the sports car, not to mention the liquor cabinet, conservatives have demonstrated that they are, if anything, the polar opposite of principles they espouse when out of power. That it's Douthat's generation's turn is his misfortune, because this time, they held power for long enough to expose that these conservative principles are shams.
The policy direction under not merely Republican control, but conservative Republican control--Inhofe, not Snowe, Delay, not Shays--has been toward centralization of political power in the executive, centralization of economic power in the hands of a large corporations, at the expense of small businesses, and a rapid growth in government engaged essentially in income transfers from households to corporate management and shareholders. These transfers take various forms: direct subsidy as with big agribusiness, price hikes through monopolies create by patent and copyright law as with big media and big pharma, replacement of civil servants and soldiers with private contractors like Blackwater and Verizon and, of course, the socialization of any losses--financial or environmental--that unfortunately happen from time to time.
Ths authoritarian program exists in a framework of unreality. Douthat mentions climate change as something that conservatives need to deal with using market mechanisms. This is, of course, what those economists I mentioned above recommend. But this is not what modern conservatives recommend. They recommend denial. This denial extends across a remarkable swath of reality, to the point that a candidate for Vice President's family planning practice consisted of recommending abstience with crossed fingers, and celebrating any teenaged, unwed pregnancy that results. This denial of reality in the realm of the individual household, "the castle" consists of advocating the state impose these fantasies onto non-compliant individuals. This is not hypothetical. Whenever possible they act to impose their fantastic beliefs onto their fellow citizens, as in North Dakota and its abortion law, in the president's executive order defining a 4 cell blastocyst as a child or with the insistence that the state purposely teach other people's children outright falsehoods.
That is, the answer to Douthat's three questions is, "They don't." They don't believe in climate change. They don't believe in maintaining infrastructure. They don't believe in better public education.
Douthat can say that he believes in these things. But American conservatives do not. Republicans do not. He really needs to get his nose out of The Fountainhead and look around, because if he believes this stuff, he is not a conservative.