Are Reform Conservatives Serious?

A crop of young thinkers trying to steer the right toward the future needs to both vanquish the Tea Party and show it has more than just a marketing campaign.
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Jim Bourg/Reuters

After Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 and during the rush of progressive legislation that followed, Republicans decided they needed to respond with some proposals of their own. It was the high tide of Great Society liberalism, and Johnson had created a vogue for legislative creativity and for national solutions to public problems. Republicans did not want to be left out, and they hoped that some of their ideas might moderate and ultimately stop LBJ’s juggernaut.

Thus arose the movement for Constructive Republican Alternatives. Liberals have always claimed that the original idea was for “Constructive Republican Alternative Policies,” until someone realized how unfortunate the acronym would be. But in truth, the conservative, moderate, and liberal Republicans (there were liberal Republicans then) who put their minds to formulating new policies were a creative bunch. From the liberals at the Ripon Society to the libertarian wing of Young Americans for Freedom to mainstream members of Congress such as Al Quie, Mel Laird, Mac Mathias, and Bob Ellsworth came a torrent of ideas, including a volunteer military; the establishment of revenue sharing with the states, an idea that can be traced back to Henry Clay and the Whigs; the negative income tax, broached early by the conservative economist Milton Friedman; block-granting programs to the states, still popular on the right; and the vogue for tax credits as an alternative to direct government spending, a method Bill Clinton freely applied when the era of big government had supposedly ended. Republicans were also essential to the enactment of the great civil rights and voting rights acts.

Now the trumpet summons Republicans again—or so, at least, does a loose, informal confederation of conservative thinkers and legislators devoutly hope. These days, they speak of themselves as leading a “conservative reform project” and often call themselves “reform conservatives.” They are not exactly the Constructive Republicans of old—the absence of liberal Republicans means the intellectual compass of this group points farther right than did the lodestar of those Constructive Republicans two generations ago. But the Reformicons do have ambitions.

Some among them are sharply critical of the Tea Party project. But many keep their criticism implicit, or argue that they are simply trying to fill a policy void on the right created by four and a half years of largely defensive and negative politics directed against President Obama and all his works. Given the power of the farther reaches of the right, most of the conservative reformers don’t want to offend them too much.

Several have used Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign as an object lesson in what Republicans should not do, pointing especially to how his campaign failed to speak to the vast majority of Americans who are employees rather than entrepreneurs. There are conservative reformers who hint at nudging the GOP to the left of where it is now and specifically highlight the importance of shedding radical anti-government rhetoric. Other Reformicons seem more interested in wrapping the same old libertarian small-government view in warm language about reviving “civil society” and relying on local communities to solve problems.

There are reformers, especially the younger ones, who say that the conservative movement must free itself from Reagan nostalgia and acknowledge that the problems of the twenty-first century are quite different from those that engaged the Gipper and the country in the 1980s. Other reformers see the road to the Promised Land as passing through a re-embrace of Reaganism—properly understood, of course. The Reagan they have in mind is the one who created Reagan Democrats because he could speak to working-class voters, a gift Romney didn’t have.

The reform conservatives can already claim a significant success: Almost all of God’s conservative children seem to want to take up the reform banner. This might lead to a certain skepticism as to whether there is any there here. The word “reform,” after all, polls very well. It was not surprising to see Karl Rove praise the movement in a March 2014 Wall Street Journal column. It was Rove, after all, who shrewdly rebaptized George W. Bush as “A Reformer with Results” to fend off John McCain’s 2000 challenge in the Republican presidential primaries.

It puts the current reform conservatism in context to see McCain as this era’s first reform conservative and to note that the positions he took, particularly during his 2000 campaign and in the early years of the Bush presidency, were well to the left of where most of today’s reform conservatives are willing to venture. McCain was a passionate campaign finance reformer in a party that is now committed to tearing down all barriers to big money in politics. He acknowledged the human causes of global warming and introduced what would now be seen as adventurous legislation to curb carbon emissions. He opposed the Bush tax cuts with populist language that is very familiar to today’s progressives.

Today’s reform conservatives are operating in a much more constrained environment. They are reacting against the Tea Party’s extreme opposition to government. But they are also limited by an increasingly conservative Republican primary electorate, the shift in the GOP’s geographical center of gravity toward the South, and a rightward drift within the business community. As long as these boundaries on their thinking hold, it is unlikely that they will leave behind as many policy monuments as the earlier Constructive Republicans did.

The Obama Problem and the Pizza Test

There is another constraint as well: While it is an article of faith among conservatives that Barack Obama has pursued a left-wing agenda—to keep themselves safely inside the right-wing tent, the reform kind typically pander to anti-Obama feeling as much as anyone—Obama has taken up many ideas that might otherwise be ripe for Reformicon picking.

Example number one is paradoxical: the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the chief object of Republican scorn. Its much-maligned complexity is built around ideas that had their origins on the right and are designed to keep the private market in health insurance intact. Had Obama supported a single-payer system or an otherwise more government-oriented plan, one could imagine reform conservatives endorsing something that looked like Obamacare—which is exactly what Mitt Romney did in Massachusetts. It’s something progressives need to think about: In trying to be practical, moderate, and reasonable, liberals themselves may have helped to shrink the philosophical space in which policies are formulated and arguments are carried out.

Obama is also a strong advocate of income-supplement plans such as the child tax credit and the earned-income tax credit, which often figure in conservative alternatives to more direct government assistance to the poor and to increases in the minimum wage. And income taxes under Obama are still lower than they were when Bill Clinton was president.

But reform conservatives would prefer not to acknowledge any of this, about Obama in particular or liberals in general. If Obama is socialism personified, then any idea he supports, no matter its genealogy, becomes suspect by definition. This is the lesson we can learn from the ritualistic attacks on the president for having “extended the power of the federal government to an unprecedented degree,” for having engineered “a federal regulatory takeover of health insurance,” and for pursuing policies that “set a high-water mark for the size and reach of the federal government.” These words came from an otherwise rather adventurous—and at times even scathing—critique of the Tea Party’s view of government by two reformers, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, both former Bush administration officials. Writing last year in the Washington Monthly on what he called the “Reformish Conservatives,” Ryan Cooper noted that members of this tribe seem inclined to produce “about three articles bashing liberal statism for every one questioning Republican dogma.”

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E.J. Dionne Jr. is the chair of Democracy's editorial committee, a Washington Post columnist, a Georgetown University professor, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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