Issue #33, Summer 2014

The Reformicons

We all wonder if the reform conservatives can change their movement. But first, we ought to wonder if they really want to.

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.”

Issue #33, Summer 2014
Post a Comment

J. R. Taylor:

Good article, though I'm surprised Dionne doesn't know that Josh Barro some time ago declared himself neoliberal rather than libertarian (his actual prior inclination) or conservative.

May 21, 2014, 8:28 AM

Reform conservatism must repudiate the gut level racism of conservative policies if they are to be taken seriously as democratic (small "d") actors in the emerging American multi-racial republic. Can they?

May 21, 2014, 11:30 AM

The article fails to touch on a significant problem that makes it nearly impossible for any real reform efforts designed to help people of middle class or below to actually take hold. The parties have become representative of the citizens of different colors. A significant majority of white America now identifies as Republican. Black and brown people support the Democratic party with significant majorities. Republicans may talk reform,but they will never sell the base on changes that might help people who don't look like them.Especially now that the Republican party is dominated electorally by its success in the South.

May 21, 2014, 12:12 PM

I wonder why Dionne includes McCain in the reformicons. The focus on middle class economic and social support that characterizes that group could be called somewhat to the left of the current GOP but it is a much different animal than McCain's politics which are much closer to establishment "centrism" which is a beast most of these writers oppose. Pushing for a carbon tax, campaign finance and ending earmarks does nothing to address the problems of the middle and working class reformicons are working on (Perhaps you can stretch things to say that opposing tax cut fit but that seems more tangential as I don't remember Mccain offering a populist alternative).

May 22, 2014, 3:38 PM

A superb bit of analysis and I'll keep it, but really Dionne is giving the Reformicons way too much benefit of the doubt. All, or most of these people, are careerists. They make their livings producing spin that ultimately doesn't amount to a new box but merely the labeling on the box

Jun 4, 2014, 3:32 PM

Excellent article!

One part put into words a nagging something that has been in the back of my mind as well: "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."

The question becomes, Is there an effective liberal response that expands the philosophical space?

Jun 29, 2014, 4:43 PM

Very well written. A broad perspective. Well reasoned. And extremely informative. My views of conservatives are based almost entirely on the conservative entertainment complex (radio variety). Examples include Alex Jones, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, et al ad nausem.

Jul 10, 2014, 7:29 PM

Write all the articles you want, but conservatives are taking the Senate back in November.

Deal with it.

Aug 2, 2014, 10:17 AM

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