Are Reform Conservatives Serious?

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

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.”

So what is serious here, and what amounts to repackaging? David Frum, a true conservative heretic, argues that many on the right know that their product is not selling as they would wish. He uses the analogy of a failing pizza chain to ask the key question: How much are they willing to change the pizza, and how much are they merely changing the box?

The answer turns out to be complicated. At times, reform conservatism does seem more concerned with the box than its contents—more infatuated with the idea of new ideas than with new ideas themselves. But it’s also true that the Obama years produced such a large lurch to the right within conservatism that many Reformicons accept the need for readjustment and for something that looks like a governing agenda.

Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, thus speaks of an “unemployment crisis,” particularly for the long-term jobless, and is willing to entertain Keynesian remedies. It is a sign that progressive arguments about inequality have gained sufficient purchase that Senator Marco Rubio is willing to acknowledge, as he did in a speech earlier this year, that “from 1980 to 2005, over 80 percent of the total increase in income went to the top 1 percent of American earners,” and that “70 percent of children born into poverty will never make it to the middle class.” That these realities are familiar to liberals does not diminish the importance of a conservative acknowledging them. Some on the right, such as Gerson and Wehner, have taken the Tea Party’s anti-government attitudes head on, pointing to “the inadequacy of the oppositional and negative approach to the question of the government’s purpose and role.” And a few have broken with conservative conventional wisdom altogether, as columnist Josh Barro has done in supporting the Affordable Care Act.

Although McCain’s maverick years suggest that some conservatives have long been aware of the need for new departures, the reformist impulse blossomed in the final years of the Bush presidency, when many on the right and within the Republican Party came to see it as a failure. In political terms, the results of the 2006 and 2008 elections made this conclusion inescapable. The early reform conservatives saw an opening for a less fierce approach focused on problem-solving. They hoped to speak to the less well-off voters who rejected the right and Bush. But their early efforts were buried under the Tea Party insurgency.

The Early and Premature Reform Conservatives

Bookish types were important to the early rumblings of reform conservatism. And some of the earliest books on the need to rethink conservatism quickly put their authors on the Index of Forbidden Thinkers.

David Frum might be seen as a “premature reformer,” in the manner of those whom parts of the left once labeled as “premature anti-Communists” because they broke with the Popular Front before others decided it was fashionable to do so. Frum’s searing criticisms of his own camp (beginning with his open disgust at McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008) made many conservatives unhappy enough to excommunicate him. Although the story is told differently by different sides, Frum’s dissidence had something to do with his departure from (or his being asked to leave) the American Enterprise Institute in 2010. His break with AEI happened to come only a few days after he lambasted the Republican Party for its failure to negotiate with the Obama White House over the Affordable Care Act. Frum’s heresy included acknowledging that the ACA had “a broad family resemblance to Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan,” building on “ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s that formed the basis for Republican counter-proposals to Clintoncare in 1993-1994.”

Against Republican cries that Obama was leading the nation to socialism, Frum insisted (correctly, as it happens) that “the gap between this plan and traditional Republican ideas is not very big.” He also earned the opprobrium of many a conservative talk show host—and coined a highly useful term—by declaring the bill’s passage “a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry.” Their “listeners and viewers,” he wrote, “will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio.”

An even earlier apostate was Bruce Bartlett. A founder of the movement among conservatives toward supply-side economics, he rebelled against the Bush administration’s budget policies. The title of his 2006 book explains why he became persona non grata among Republicans (and also why he was fired by the National Center for Policy Analysis, a generally pro-Bush think tank): Imposter: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Ironically, this summarizes rather well the views that many Tea Party Republicans were to come to a few years later. Bartlett got there too early, and he has subsequently moved away from the right altogether.

If Frum and Bartlett were rebels, two younger men who published a reformist book in 2008 are among the Founding Fathers of Reform Conservatism. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam (both born in 1979) have managed to stay a few steps ahead of the reform curve while still remaining inside the conservative family. Appropriately for their generation, both were influential bloggers. Douthat later became the youngest-ever New York Times columnist, and Salam has written for a variety of publications and is a senior fellow at the free-market R Street Institute. Their Grand New Party carried a subtitle that accurately captured their central preoccupation: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

Like Frum, Douthat and Salam committed the apostasy of acknowledging the challenges and problems created by globalization. Most distinctive about the Douthat-Salam thesis was its criticism of the Republican Party for having relied for many years on white working-class voters without delivering many tangible benefits to a constituency that had reason to “feel more insecure.” Working-class voters had flocked to Reagan in the 1980s and to Newt Gingrich’s revolution in the 1990s, they noted, but quickly became “disillusioned with conservative governance and returned to the Democratic column” because Republicans had failed to address their concerns. Republicans ruined the courtship, they charged, “by confusing being pro-market with being pro-business … and by shrinking from the admittedly difficult task of reforming the welfare state so that it serves the interests of the working class rather than the affluent.”

Their prime policy antidote served as a prototype of the stance later reformers would come to. Republicans always like to fiddle the tax code downward, and the duo proposed a large expansion of the child tax credit to $5,000 (a policy that, as we’ve seen, that alleged socialist Obama embraced in a more modest form) as well as pension and tuition credits for stay-at-home parents. They argued that means-testing of Social Security benefits (a longstanding conservative goal) should be linked to payroll-tax cuts for lower-income workers (a direct, immediate benefit for the working class). They pushed a version of expanded charter schools and, in a bow to Bill Clinton, proposed federal help to assist communities in hiring a lot more cops. Some of their ideas were altogether outside the box, including a suggestion that farm subsidies be scrapped in favor of “subsidies for carbon removal and other environment-friendly agricultural ventures.”

But in all this, their cardinal concern was the breakdown of the working-class family, a catastrophe that aggravated inequality and stifled mobility and opportunity. This worry about the actual state of the American family—quite different from an obsession with opposition to gay marriage—might be seen as a Reformicon growth stock. At its worst, blaming “culture” for inequality can become an alibi for avoiding any confrontation with injustices within the economic system and a way to beat back proposals that challenge existing privileges. But the best of the reformers (Douthat and Salam among them) are willing to flip the causal arrows and acknowledge that the economic struggles of the working class have made the task of forming and maintaining stable families more difficult—thus their emphasis on new tax benefits keyed to parents.

In their concern over the state of the family, they are joined by National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru, who originally advocated the large child tax credit, and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Ponnuru has long been willing to point out weaknesses in conservative arguments and was one of the first on the right (within days of the 2012 election) to score Republicans for a narrow focus on the greatness of entrepreneurs (those “job creators”) to the exclusion of voters—the vast majority, in fact—who worked for wages and salaries. Brooks has long been a conservative dissident (Charles Krauthammer, speaking only partly in jest, once labeled Brooks his favorite “liberal columnist”) and he frequently invokes the Whig tradition of Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln to defend large-scale federal investment in infrastructure, research, development, and education.

Two other early ventures in reform conservatism are worthy of note. Yuval Levin is a 36-year-old University of Chicago Ph.D. who founded National Affairs, a quarterly journal that has become an intellectual meeting place for reform conservatives and intellectuals and policy specialists who represent many other brands of the creed. His recent book The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left (reviewed in Democracy's Winter 2014 issue) chides “today’s conservatives” for being “too rhetorically strident and far too open to the siren song of hyperindividualism.” He suggests that conservatives could learn from “Burke’s focus on the social character of man,” his “thoroughgoing gradualism,” and “his emphasis on community and on the sentiments.”

In an important 2006 article for The Weekly Standard prefiguring these arguments, Levin acknowledged, as few conservatives are willing to do, the deep tensions between the market and the family:

The market values risk-taking and creative destruction that can be very bad for family life, and rewards the lowest common cultural denominator in ways that can undermine traditional morality. Traditional values, on the other hand, discourage the spirit of competition and self-interested ambition essential for free markets to work, and their adherents sometimes seek to enforce codes of conduct that constrain individual freedom. The libertarian and the traditionalist are not natural allies.

Levin acknowledged that the policy fixes he proposed (they included healthcare portability, long-term-care insurance, and school choice) were “barely a start” to what needs to be done for those in what he calls “the parenting class.” This admission points to an ongoing problem for the Reformicons: Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market’s shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market’s priorities and are thus much smaller than the problem they’re addressing. Nonetheless, Levin deserves credit for treading where many conservatives fear to go.

Michael Gerson’s 2007 Heroic Conservatism was partly a defense of George W. Bush, for whom Gerson had been chief speechwriter. But it was also an early marker for reform conservatism. An evangelical Christian himself and one of the pioneers of “compassionate conservatism,” Gerson mourned the decline of the alliance between evangelicalism and the cause of social justice. “Where does someone belong who is pro-life and pro-poor?” he asked.

“If Republicans run in future elections with a simplistic anti-government message, ignoring the poor, the addicted, and children at risk,” warned Gerson, by then a Washington Post columnist, “they will lose, and they will deserve to lose.”

He turned out to be right about 2012. Yet in 2010, Republicans did run on “a simplistic anti-government message” that did ignore “the poor, the addicted and children at risk.” And they won. What mattered, declared Representative Mike Pence of Indiana—he was elected governor in 2012—was steering the Republican Party “back to the principles of limited government, fiscal discipline and traditional moral values.” The key word was “back.” The Tea Party’s call for a “constitutional conservatism,” based on a remarkably skewed reading of the Founders’ intentions, was, for a while, the only “reform” conservatism that counted.

The Tea Party, the '47 Percent,' and the Second Reformicon Revolt

The hard-line conservatives and libertarians who animated the Tea Party rebellion differed fundamentally from most of the early (and later) Reformicons in their explanation of the Bush presidency’s failure. The Bush project imploded, they insisted, primarily because Bush represented “big government” conservatism. He ran up the deficit. He centralized control over education through the “No Child Left Behind” law. He created a large new entitlement through the prescription-drug benefit in Medicare. He preached a “compassionate conservatism” whose very name implied that the regular kind was cruel. And to top it off, he sought and won a $700 billion bailout of the banks during the 2008 financial crisis. The solution to what ailed Republicanism, the Tea Party partisans insisted, was a return to the true faith of small government, low taxes, and states’ rights.

This explanation downplayed a great deal that actually mattered to the voters who turned away from Bush: the Iraq War, his handling of Hurricane Katrina, the economic collapse, and more. But it had the virtue that all good alibis have: It got those who might be accused of failure themselves off the hook. The only problem with conservatism, in this view, was that it had not been tried in a pure enough form.

The Tea Party attitude began to take hold before Obama became president and before the movement got its name. But the Obama ascendancy reinforced its approach among Republican congressional leaders. Urged on by the conservative entertainment complex, Republicans decided to erect a wall of opposition to virtually everything Obama proposed. This had two broad advantages for the GOP. The strategy was the only one acceptable to the party’s conservative base. And by undercutting Obama’s promise to be a unifying leader, Republicans could mire his presidency in gridlock, bring down his approval ratings, and declare him a failure.

None of this was particularly appealing to the conservative reformers, but most of them, as loyal conservatives and Republicans, fell into line behind criticisms of the stimulus and the healthcare law—to which many of them had objections anyway. And an increasingly conservative Republican primary electorate enforced the hard line and left little space for any compromise with Obama. The 2010 defeat of respected moderates such as Representative Mike Castle of Delaware and the threats to staunch conservatives like Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had once worked closely with Democrats, sent a chill through the reform cause.

The net effect was to leave the Republican Party in a parlous intellectual state as the 2012 election approached. Mitt Romney, a moderate conservative, may have defeated his more hardline rivals, but they defined the discourse during the primaries. Romney ran away from his record as governor of Massachusetts rather than touting it. Some of his most important mistakes—particularly his comments on the “47 percent” and his decision to offer “self-deportation” as his immigration solution—were rooted in his party’s moral and ideological commitments and in his political need to embrace them.

The “makers” and “takers” idea had been introduced into the political lexicon by Representative Paul Ryan and promoted by respected conservative intellectuals such as Nicholas Eberstadt and Arthur Brooks of AEI. The moral elevation of the “job creators” over everyone else and the party’s hard opposition to government made it difficult for Romney to offer material benefits (other than tax cuts) to the working-class voters whose support he badly needed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Thus did the ideological positioning of the two parties put Romney at a disadvantage from the beginning.

This has enabled reform conservatism’s comeback. In the wake of the 2012 defeat and then the strategic fiasco of the Republican shutdown of government in the fall of 2013, reform conservatives were in a position to say, “I told you so.” Tea Party slogans would not be enough.

One sign of the shift is a strategic repositioning by Republicans and conservatives who had once broadly accepted the “job creators” and “makers and takers” formulations but now embrace something more, well … compassionate. Arthur Brooks published an article in the February 2014 issue of Commentary titled “Be Open-Handed Toward Your Brothers” in which he called on conservatives to accept the idea of a social safety net, support increases in the earned-income tax credit, and favor new ways of helping the unemployed, including subsidies to help them move to better job markets.

Once again, Republicans were thinking about the working class. One of the most creative Reformicon thinkers, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was devastating in his description of the 2012 campaign:

Obama effectively asked: Which do you like better? Would you prefer the Republican alternative as exemplified by the candidacy of Mitt Romney and the policies he and his party have proposed in Congress and on the stump? … One would have thought that Romney would actively join the debate. In a way he did, for he often emphasized that America was a land where anyone could start from scratch and build a business. The subtle implication, however, was that people who did so were the best Americans and everyone else was just along for the ride. It is in that sense that the phrase “you built that” and laments about “makers” versus “takers” were the essence of Romney’s America.

Republicans lost the debate they never really joined because they forgot a core constant in American politics that involves, Olsen argued, “the willingness to use government power to help individuals advance in life.” He concluded, rather devastatingly to the Tea Party’s champions: “If American principles simply require hands-off government, then American principles have not been part of our politics for a very long time. A hands-off approach is not what American politics and principles require; it is a parody of what America and American conservatism mean.”

Most progressives would cheer this. But Walter Mondale’s old question stands: Where’s the beef? Do the ponderings of the Reformicons have any resonance among Republican politicians who write budgets and pass laws?

Three Speeches

Marco Rubio has received credit and attention for being willing to face some of the facts about inequality and obstacles to mobility, as he did in his January speech. Rubio said flatly: “Our modern-day economy has wiped out many of the low-skill jobs that once provided millions with a middle-class living. Those that have not been outsourced or replaced by technology pay wages that fail to keep pace with the cost of living.”

Fair enough. Then what? He dismissed the importance of raising the minimum wage, arguing that “having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.” Perhaps not, but it’s $2.75 closer than $7.25 an hour. We need to foster more growth, Rubio said, and what he offered was material that is in every Republican’s speeches these days: concern about our “dangerous and growing national debt,” support for a “tax code that incentivizes investment,” and criticism of “regulations that prevent employers from expanding.” Not much new here.

The speech also reflected the ongoing Republican focus on culture and family issues. A child born into a broken family, living in a bad neighborhood, and attending a dysfunctional school “is, in all likelihood, not going to have the same opportunity to succeed as a child growing up in a stable home, in a safe neighborhood and attending a good school,” Rubio said. Again: sure.

Really, Rubio’s big speech came down to two major ideas. The first was to “turn Washington’s anti-poverty programs—and the trillions spent on them—over to the states,” creating a “revenue-neutral Flex Fund” out of the proceeds. The second was the replacement of the earned-income tax credit (EITC) with a federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs that “appl[ies] the same to singles as it would to married couples and families with children.”

It’s hard to get excited about either of these ideas, and there are reasons to be skeptical of both. Rubio’s “Flex Fund” idea is just a super block grant, hardly a breathtaking innovation. Moreover, as Sharon Parrott of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) pointed out, the Florida Republican’s approach threatens to obliterate the role of various entitlements as automatic stabilizers during economic downturns. She also noted that as a general rule, it’s easier to cut a big block of money than to win support for, say, throwing large numbers of children off food stamps. So Rubio’s innovation could be an invitation to reductions in programs for the needy down the road.

As for Rubio’s plan to replace the EITC, it’s good to see Republicans endorsing programs along these lines in the wake of GOP efforts in Congress to cut them. And Rubio is right that the EITC is insufficiently generous to single workers without families. But one person who agrees with him on this is President Obama, who has included an expansion in his budget. Will Republicans work with Obama on this?

Rubio needs to respond to another concern: How is he going to pay for his program? As Parrott contends, unless Rubio plans to spend much more on his wage program than we now spend on the EITC, “his proposal would have to dramatically cut the earnings supplements that the EITC now provides to low-income working families with children.” Thus do Rubio’s policy contributions raise the classic question that progressives will keep asking their reformist friends on the right: Even when Reformicons recognize there are problems that only government can solve, are they willing to put the money behind their solutions required to make a material difference?

A second speech in the Reformicon canon is Representative Eric Cantor’s “Make Life Work” address in February 2013. Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, is quite explicit in recognizing government’s responsibility “to ensure [that] every American has a fair shot at earning their success and achieving their dreams.” He was concrete in describing the specific aspirations of so many American families and the kinds of questions they are asking:

Where can you find an affordable home in a good neighborhood to raise your kids? Which healthcare plan can I afford that allows you to see your doctors? Will the children make it through high school and get into a college of their choice, and if so, can you afford it? … These are real-life concerns.

Cantor’s solutions, for the most part, followed a safe conservative script. He endorsed school choice, including both private and charter schools for low-income children. For higher education, he argued that parents and students be supplied “with reliable information on the unemployment rate and potential earnings by major.”

He also proposed allowing employees to “convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time” and praised the child tax credit. And he tried to put his party’s ongoing efforts to undermine the ACA in a pro-worker context by endorsing the repeal of “the new taxes that are increasing the costs of healthcare and health insurance, like the medical device tax.” This, of course, was just an effort to undercut the ACA’s funding base. He proposed “ending the arbitrary division” in the Medicare program “between Part A, the hospital program, and Part B, the doctor services,” increasing spending for cancer research, and immigration reform focused on DREAMers.

To a large degree, Cantor was just recasting the existing Republican agenda in the language of what might be called “solutionism.” In one sense, this was progress, since Cantor was implicitly recognizing that Republicans had been asking the wrong questions, talking about the wrong issues, and limiting the range of voters they were addressing. While his education initiatives were old stuff—the voucher debate has long been with us—it’s fair enough to challenge progressives on school reform. And Cantor’s Medicare reorganization (unlike longstanding GOP proposals to voucherize the program) is a wonkish fix worth debating.

But it was also clear that Cantor was more engaged in rebranding than rethinking. The Republican “flex time” proposals may sound like an advance, but they reflect a longtime effort by businesses to avoid paying compensation for overtime. The “choice” for workers would not be entirely “free,” since they could come under pressure from their employers to take time rather than money when they worked beyond 40 hours.

Two months after Cantor gave his speech, he brought to the floor one of his policy alternatives, an effort to transfer money out of the ACA’s disease-prevention account and into a separate endeavor to create high-risk pools for Americans who had difficulty obtaining regular insurance. He lost. Conservative Republicans did not want to cast any votes that might be seen as even indirectly endorsing Obamacare. Cantor’s failure—even on an idea that, by any fair reading, was an anti-Obamacare move—raised again the fundamental problem facing Reformicons: They can come up with all the new policy they want, but if the congressional GOP remains locked in obstruction and opposition, then repackaging, let alone genuine rethinking, will remain an isolated project championed primarily by a few intellectuals and journalists but ignored by lawmakers.

Still, the lure of reform conservatism is strong, and even the Tea Party now wants to put its mark on the movement. This helps explain Senator Mike Lee’s April 2013 speech at the Heritage Foundation. Lee is a source of Tea Party pride as one of the first of its 2010 candidates to knock out a very conservative politician, former Utah Senator Bob Bennett, for being insufficiently pure. Right off, Lee’s speech accepted a central rhetorical theme of reform conservatism: To be successful, the right needed to be positive. “The left has created this false narrative that liberals are for things, and conservatives are against things,” he said. “When we concede this narrative, even just implicitly, we concede the debate before it even begins.” He added: “We conservatives seem to have abandoned words like ‘together,’ ‘compassion,’ and ‘community’ as if their only possible meanings were as a secret code for statism.”

It was an astute rhetorical move, and Lee’s quest for community took him to every form of human togetherness—he praised “husbands and wives; parents and children; neighbors and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, groups, associations, and friends.” He insisted: “Collective action doesn’t only—or even usually—mean government action.”

With government playing so small a role in Lee’s effort to fuse libertarian practice with communitarian theory, it’s not surprising that almost all his policy reform ideas focused on cutting back the state.

Thus did his “new conservative reform agenda” focus on attacks on “corporate welfare,” including what he called “venture SOCIALISM” (the capital letters were in his text) involving “politicians funneling taxpayer money to politically correct businesses that cannot attract real investors.” Invoking a series of conservative hobbyhorses, he called for ending public support “to supposed non-profits like Planned Parenthood, public broadcasting, agricultural check-off programs, and the Export-Import Bank.” He backed broad devolution of policy-making to the states. His list of problems that should be solved outside Washington included “transportation, education, labor, welfare, healthcare [and] home mortgage lending.”

Lee peppered his speech with references to “reform,” but what he had in mind were cutbacks and repeals. He did, however, offer one idea where libertarianism and liberalism coincide: sentencing reform. Progressives can credit Lee and other libertarians (such as Senator Rand Paul) for opening political space on the one issue that may yet allow Obama to find the trans-ideological concord he has been seeking since his presidency began. Nonetheless, Lee’s speech and a subsequent critique of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty serve primarily as a cautionary tale: As the ideas of the reform-conservative intellectuals gain traction, many elected officials on the right will try to recast program cuts, block grants, deregulation, and states’ rights as embodying the next new thing in public policy. The promise of reform conservatism is that it will move the right to more moderate and practical ground. But many hope to use the buzz it has generated as an opportunity to stamp the words “new and improved” on the box containing the same old pizza.

Judging the Reformicons

It’s important to recognize what the Reformicons are not. They are not the Creative Republicans who, in the mid-1960s, were responding to an intellectual and political world in which liberalism was at its zenith.

Nor are the Reformicons quite like the “Atari Democrats” or the “New Democrats” of the 1980s and ’90s. Some in their ranks do, indeed, look back to Bill Clinton’s project and the Democratic Leadership Council as models for remaking their party and their movement. But the 1980s Democratic moderates were responding to the ideological jolt of Ronald Reagan’s resounding electoral victories. Obama’s rise has not had the same impact—partly because his reelection in 2012 was far narrower than Reagan’s in 1984. As some Republicans acknowledge privately, it will take a third presidential election loss in 2016 to open the space required for a thoroughgoing renovation on the right.

And the Reformicons are not 1960s and ’70s neoconservatives who, in their original form, were actually liberals “mugged by reality,” as Irving Kristol famously put it. In many though by no means all cases, the neoconservatives eventually became disillusioned with liberalism. With a very few exceptions, the Reformicons show no signs of defecting because most of them do not share the degree of alienation from their creed and their old allies felt by Kristol and those who drifted with him toward the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

The neoconservative movement is instructive in another way. In the lead-up to Reagan’s 1980 victory, there was a genuine hunger on the right for ideas. The neoconservatives around The Public Interest and Commentary were welcomed by traditional conservatives of the National Review variety because the right was—certainly compared to now—in an expansive, optimistic mood. Today’s right is a much gloomier movement more inclined to condemn heretics than to seek out converts. It has a remarkably pessimistic view of the country’s future.

Conservatism has also been deformed by flights of irrationality about Barack Obama, egged on by Frum’s conservative entertainment complex. The Reformicons are not the authors of the attacks on Obama as a socialist, a “Muslim,” a “Kenyan anti-colonialist,” or the bearer of a false birth certificate. Yet those who do launch such attacks have power in the Republican Party and their nasty inventions require much stronger resistance from a serious conservative intellectual movement.

In the short run, the Reformicons seem destined to let progressives down, partly because, as Salam has observed, “Conservative reformism is conservative.” This simple observation, Douthat argues, explains why the movement “(understandably) strikes many liberals as disappointing, counterproductive or woefully insufficient.”

Progressives can welcome Reformicon efforts to correct the GOP’s sharp tilt to the right, to reduce its overt hostility to government, and to rejoin the policy debate across a broad range of issues. Reform conservatism is better than the conservatism we have had.

But the conservatism we have had—and the politics it entails—will make it very hard for members of this movement to be as bold or as creative as our national moment requires.

Reform conservatives regularly frustrate progressives by refusing to face up to the problem of growing inequality (even when they acknowledge stalled social mobility). They are far too timid in their approaches to economic injustice and to the structural problems in the economic system.

Because the conservative movement won’t allow them to do it, they refuse to recognize the ways in which Obama has used conservative means—their means—to achieve progressive ends, notably through the Affordable Care Act. Many of them, including Levin, remain passionately committed to Obamacare’s repeal. Even when the reform conservatives and liberals agree, as they do on the value of the EITC and the child tax credit, most of the Reformicons (there are exceptions like Salam) are reluctant to make common cause with liberals to expand these programs. And even when they acknowledge the need to spend public money, whether on some forms of the safety net or on infrastructure investments, they often engage in “rob Peter to pay Paul” budgeting by calling for sharp reductions in programs progressives see as essential.

This points to the wide gap between the hopeful pronouncements of the reform conservatives and the behavior of Republicans in Congress, who define themselves by way of Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, the latest of which, according to the CBPP, gets 69 percent of its cuts from programs serving Americans of limited means. There is nothing new and improved about this.

There are areas where progressives and the Reformicons might find common ground, sentencing reform being one of them. But the two sides are still some distance from shared premises. The conservatives are not wrong to point to family dissolution as a genuine problem for low-income Americans. But progressives would lay heavy stress on how economic insecurity (and the mass incarceration of African Americans) has placed unbearable pressures on families even as workplace practices placing market concerns ahead of family life complicate the task of balancing work and family. To the extent that conservatives focus on family breakdown as the primary cause of poverty and avoid examining how poverty causes family breakdown, what could be a useful shared quest for sensible and compassionate policies will be reduced to another shouting match about culture and values.

Similarly, most progressives value civil-society institutions as much as conservatives do. What they object to, as Mike Konczal argued recently, is the idea that these voluntary forms of community can replace essential government services. As Konczal noted, private charity can respond to social problems “with targeted and nimble aid for individuals and communities” but cannot be expected to shoulder “the huge, cumbersome burden of alleviating the income insecurities of a modern age.”

How do we judge the Reformicons by their own standards? Gerson offers a rather modest definition of who they are, calling reform conservatism “an intellectual movement advocating policy alternatives.” That is, when you think about it, a quietly devastating critique of recent forms of conservatism that didn’t seem to care much about policy at all. It’s why the appearance of Levin’s National Affairs was an important event. The closing of The Public Interest in 2005 signaled a conservative retreat from open-ended policy debate. National Affairs sought to rejoin the contest of ideas, although the magazine is more determined to hew to the right’s party line than was The Public Interest, which continued to publish the occasional liberal even as neoconservatism itself drifted steadily closer to the original brand. This is another symptom of wagon-circling and of how difficult it now is for its thinkers to go too far outside the right’s version of political correctness.

Douthat offers a two-part test in the form of principles: First, that while our “growing social crisis” can’t be solved in Washington, “economic and social policy can make a difference nonetheless”; second, that “existing welfare-state institutions we’ve inherited from the New Deal and the Great Society … often make these tasks harder” by crowding out other forms of spending, hindering growth, and contributing to wage stagnation. So, says Douthat, “we don’t face a choice between streamlining the welfare state and making it more supportive of work and family; we should be doing both at once.”

For his part, Frum offers a more demanding standard. He argues that conservatives need “an economic message that is inclusive where middle-class economic performance is at the core.” This would include “various kinds of benefits to middle-class people outside the market.” One of them, he insists—and here is his Obamacare heresy again—must be “removing healthcare as a haunting concern.” Next would come a “modern cultural message.” The movement should abandon its insistence on making abortion illegal and replace it with a promise “to cut the number of abortions by two-thirds over the next ten years.” In the process, Republicans should be “just banishing the idea that the purpose of your party is to regulate the intimate behavior of women.” Frum wants a more environmentally conscious movement and, against the libertarian-leanings of Rand Paul, he insists that Republicans must maintain their position as advocates of military strength and engagement abroad.

Foreign-policy issues will split conservatives in the coming years, and they are not at the center of the Reformicon agenda. But a serious reform conservatism needs to take Frum’s domestic agenda seriously. His call for an economic approach willing to go “outside the market” to ease the struggles of low-income and middle-class Americans is the acid test of the movement’s seriousness. A true reform conservatism would move Republicans out of a comfort zone that sees deregulated markets and even more rewards for investors as elixirs for all economic ailments. Throwing more money at rich people is not a social policy.

And the Reformicons, who are diverse in their views on social issues, need to be bolder in approaching cultural modernization. To have a future, conservatism cannot view an increasingly diverse and tolerant America as a horror. A Burkean traditionalism honors the gifts diverse communities bring to a nation.

In responding to the Reformicons, progressives can learn from those on the 1970s right who welcomed the liberal apostasy of the neoconservatives by way of expanding their movement. It is conservatism’s current aversion to public intervention in the marketplace that is blocking efforts to grapple with the problems of inequality, slower job growth, and the diminishing prospects of a large number of our fellow citizens. To the extent that reform conservatives are willing to battle the Tea Party’s reflexive hostility to government, they will be part of the solution.

But reform conservatism must still prove itself to be more than a slogan, more than a marketing campaign, more than that new pizza box. The Reformicons can be part of the historic correction the conservative movement badly needs—or they can settle for being sophisticated enablers of more of the same.


This article originally appeared in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, an Atlantic partner publication.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/are-reform-conservatives-serious/371839/