The Reform Coalition

by Reihan Salam

Ross Douthat’s (wise) Sunday column on the post-Bush, post-Romney conservative movement prompted a reply from Yuval Levin here at NRO, which includes the following passage:

Recovering this understanding of conservative economics would help today’s Republicans see an enormous public need, and an enormous political opportunity, they tend to miss, and to which conservatism could be very usefully applied. It would point to a conservative agenda to help working families better afford life in the middle class, and to give more Americans a chance to rise. This would mean emphasizing conservative paths to higher wages and a lower cost of living for working families (like pro-family tax reform, a more growth-oriented monetary policy, health-care reform that reduces costs through competition and consumer power, energy policy aimed at both spurring growth and lowering utility bills by making the most of our domestic resources, K–12 reform to give families more ways to escape failing schools, higher-ed reforms to restrain tuition inflation, entitlement reform to reduce the burden of debt on the young while retaining the safety net for the poor and the old). It would also mean financial regulation with an eye to competition, rather than consolidation.

The Democratic party can’t really do most of this. Both its ideology and its electoral coalition leave its options quite constrained. It has to make the most of its status as the party of entrenched insiders, and to employ populist rhetoric to mask its increasingly elitist agenda. 

Briefly, I want to elaborate on Yuval’s characterization of the Democratic party. Yuval is unsparing about the GOP in its current configuration, characterizing it as “the party of cultural populism and economic elitism,” yet he nevertheless sees it as the superior vehicle for conservative reformism. I can’t speak for why Yuval feels this way, but my own view is that while Republicans really are beholden to a number of problematic constituencies (e.g., physicians) and largely disconnected from a number of really important ones (e.g., lifetime low-earner single parents), the Republican coalition poses far less of an obstacle to the kinds of institutional reform I believe the U.S. needs right now than the Democratic coalition. To be sure, the Democratic coalition is extremely diverse. But the policy agenda of the Democratic party is heavily influenced by public employee unions, higher education incumbents, and large urban hospitals. (One might also add large financial services firms, but large financial services firms have at least as much influence on Republican policymaking.) And if you support the kind of K-12, higher education, and health reforms that aim to spur business-model innovation that might damage the near-term interests of some non-trivial number of public employees, higher education incumbents, and large urban hospitals, etc., you will find yourself pushing a rock uphill as a Democrat. 

This doesn’t mean that the GOP is an ideal vehicle for conservative reformers, at least not yet. A few weeks ago, I wrote on how partisan demographics shape policy thinking, observing that because lifetime low-earners tend not to be a part of GOP electoral constituencies (i.e., the people who actually vote for you rather than the broader constituency one might represent), there is a natural tendency for Republicans to discount their interests. This is clearly a barrier to good policymaking — whether you’re a libertarian populist who believes that Republicans should care more about trade barriers that keep the price of basic food items higher than they need to be or a conservative reformer who is really invested in K-12 reform as a vehicle to improve human capital outcomes among poor children, you need Republican lawmakers to invest time and effort in these causes. The question is whether it is easier to persuade Republican politicians to care about the education of “someone else’s children” or to convince Democratic politicians to take actions that will damage the interests of the median public employee. Over time, I think Republican voters are more likely to become more concerned about educational outcomes among poor children than that unionized public employees will lose interest in assiduously defending their interests. So you could argue that conservative reformers are making a bet about the future that may or may not pay off. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.