10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Change, Not a Restoration: The Death of Conservatism and Rebirth of Reform

The tide is about to turn in the debate over health care reform. The lies and the screaming that captured the discussion in August have a lot of Republicans thinking they've got the Democrats right where they want 'em.

They are wrong. And they are wrong because their castle is built upon a pile of sand... a pile of crazy, crazy sand.

Sam Tanenhaus talked about it earlier today on Morning Joe. Discussing his new book, The Death of Conservatism, Tanenhaus warned that today's Republican Party is more about radicalism than conservatism. He recalled how in the 1950s, William F. Buckley, Jr., began pushing the lunatics and extremists out of the conservative movement in order to legitimize and strengthen their argument. This preparation allowed them to pounce when the time was ripe in the late 1960s.

This is why supporters of health care reform are about to experience a second wind. Because while the mobs, the conspiracy theorists and the lie-pushers look like they're winning the debate for the Republicans, they are actually setting them up for a big fall.

For the discussion will inevitably move past what the protesters think the dreaded 'Obamacare' will do (Kill grandma!!!), to ask A) why they feel this way and B) what's their alternative?

The crazy-crazies can only answer the first question. A lot of ink has been spilled debunking the lies; not as much attention has been focused on explaining why some so easily believe them. Confronted with explaining how any sane person could believe 'President Obama's bureaucrat army will kill grandma,' they'll spin into whatever tizzy best suits them, be it Kenya, Communism, black nationalism, Nazism -- who knows what. Their explanations are way, way out of the American mainstream, and frankly, creepy.

So that leaves the response of the reality-based Republican community (a rapidly shrinking field). These people have enjoyed the hysterics of the last month, happy to see Obama and the Democrats sweat. At the same time, they seem somewhat embarrassed by the most heinous lies and would love to fast-forward fourteen months to when they can reap the benefits and regain power. For the time being, they will explain their opposition to health care reform as based on bigger deficit projections or excessive harm to the insurance industry.

Though no matter what they say, it will miss the mark. David Brooks points to Obama losing support among independents, supposedly frightened of debt tied to his health care reform. What Brooks does not acknowledge is that they're not so much opposed to reform as they are confused as to what it will do. It's hard not to be confused with so many lies being so carelessly tossed around... But once the din dies down, and the conversation moves on to the why and the what behind the opposition, Republicans are in for a rude awakening.

Because people want change -- not a restoration.

And here the Republican Party is utterly unprepared. Their alternatives are lousy because their party has spent no significant time honing and improving their failed ideas from when they were recently in power. Nor, as Tanenhaus suggested, have they pushed the lunatics and extremists away from the debate; if anything, they've pushed them to the front.

In so many ways, you have the case of an opposition party that is not yet ready to be an opposition party. The smash-it-up approach may have worked for August, but it has done nothing to improve the Republicans' capability to offer cohesive, plausible alternatives.

At least ones that are not a return to the policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.