A week had passed since the 2012 election when Josh Barro finally said the unsayable. The 28-year-old Bloomberg View columnist is—or, arguably, was—the most precocious of a coterie of conservative reformists whose numbers have steadily swollen, those arguing that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change.
Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years. In recent months, owing to the shock of Mitt Romney’s defeat, more-orthodox figures like James Pethokoukis and Michael Gerson have joined them. But all have delivered their critiques with a velvet touch that underplays the scale of the change they advocate. Of course Reagan’s canon—taxes bad, spending bad, markets good—addressed the problems of 1980, they gently submit. But new problems have replaced them, like too-big-to-fail banks and middle-class wage stagnation, thus demanding new, middle-class-friendly solutions. The reformers offer positive alternatives and cheerfully tout any signs, however faint, of their imminent adoption. What they do not do is face up to the stark contrast between their imagined Republican Party and the real thing.
This is the threshold Barro crossed. The trouble, he wrote on November 14, “is not simply that Republicans lack the imagination to come up with ideas to get higher wages, more jobs and affordable health care to the middle class. It is that there is no set of policies that is both acceptable to conservatives and likely to achieve these goals.” The GOP’s choice to advocate low taxes for the rich rather than fund any kind of scheme to provide health care for the uninsured was no mere oversight, but a conscious decision, he later wrote—one that inevitably followed from the party’s dogmatic attachment to market outcomes and the dictates of its donor base. “The pro–middle class conservative project,” he pronounced, “is doomed.”