Jonathan Chait on the Evolution of the GOP

by Reihan Salam

In a new TNR review essay, Jonathan Chait of New York draws on Geoffrey Kabaservice’s Rule and Ruin to make the case that the GOP has grown incorrigibly radical. Towards the end of the piece, Chait offers a meditation on where he thinks moderate conservatives like David Brooks and Ross Douthat, my co-author, have gone wrong. Though I disagree with Chait’s thesis, his essay is well worth reading as a distillation of how one smart center-left thinker interprets today’s Republican party.

I was particularly inclined to read Chait’s essay because he recently wrote a smart, fair-minded essay on the pervasive liberalism of the entertainment industry (it’s real) and its impact on the wider culture (it’s significant). 

It turns out that I reviewed Kabaservice’s book for Foreign Affairs a few months back, and my interpretation of the GOP’s evolution is, not surprisingly, markedly different from Chait’s. The conservative conversation in recent years has gone from maddeningly vague small government sentiment to a more rigorous, if still imperfect, critique of the workings of the welfare state, e.g.:

(a) there is a new conservative consensus around how to restructure existing health entitlements, though there remains considerable disagreement over how to pursue coverage expansion;

(b) led by Sen. Pat Toomey, who had earlier on served as the president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, a large number of congressional Republicans embraced the idea that an eventual deficit-reduction deal could include revenue increases relative to the current policy — not the current law — baseline;

and (c) at the state and local level, conservatives are actively rethinking the delivery of public services like K-12 and medical care for the poor and aged. Calls for revising the terms of public employment are part of a broader effort to emphasize the importance of business model innovation in the public sector.

Like Yuval Levin, I believe that conservatives are seeking big structural changes to the welfare state because they actually want to preserve the basic postwar bargain: the state will provide for older Americans and the very poor without crowding out private initiative. The trouble is that preserving this basic postwar bargain will mean containing cost growth, and this in turn will require embracing ambitious market-oriented reforms.

The obvious rejoinder to my analysis is that it is ingenuous and overly optimistic, and my analysis certainly doesn’t translate into how conservatives on the national stage tend to talk about complex public policy issues. I’m sympathetic to Evan Soltas’s interpretation of this phenomenon: Republicans have a counterproductive tendency to characterize modest policy initiatives in sweeping language. Medicare competitive bidding, for example, could have been characterized as an effort to fix Medicare Advantage, a popular and familiar program.

My optimism is rooted in my interpretation of developments on the ground — how Louisiana’s school reforms have enabled new charter management organizations and specialized instructional providers to flourish, how Florida’s Medicaid reforms have achieved significant cost savings, how Indiana achieved significant efficiency gains across state government, etc. I’m very aware of the fact that I could be wrong. But parties are built to win, and what we might call the Daniels-Christie-Jeb Bush thesis is just a better fit for the changing electorate.