The conservative intellectual Reihan Salam has shrewdly observed that people trying to reform institutions must choose between an “outside game” that challenges existing leadership—and an “inside game” that woos existing leaders.
On Sunday, Sam Tanenhaus profiled a group of self-described "reform conservatives" in The New York Times Magazine. Tanenhaus, author of an outstanding biography of Whittaker Chambers, knows his way around American conservatism. He has fiercely criticized the “revanchism” of the right-wing militancy of the first Obama term. This time, however, Tanenhaus spoke in respectful praise. The art director went even further: The magazine photographed 11 of the profiled people in an 18th-century hall, crumpled papers at their feet, an homage to J.L.G. Ferris’s well-known painting of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Tanenhaus’s reformers constitute very much an “inside” group. Most of them work at think tanks that were closely associated with the Romney-Ryan ticket of 2012, others at a policy network organized by the chief of staff to outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. As a group, they do not deviate very far from current Republican orthodoxy. But they urge that the next round of Republican tax cuts favor parents rather more and high-income earners rather less. They urge that the Earned-Income Tax Credit be replaced by more narrowly targeted wage subsidies. They are interested in following the lead of David Cameron’s U.K. government, which has consolidated many social programs into a “universal credit” for needy people. There is no equivalent here of, say, the willingness of the New Democrats of the 1980s to tangle with teachers’ unions.