The Problem with Reform Conservatism
It needs a president to adopt its agenda.

Is Rubio Ready? (Alex Wong/Getty Images)


Matthew Continetti

Aintellectually stimulating and potentially historic event was held at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday. House majority leader Eric Cantor, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and senators Mike Lee and Tim Scott appeared alongside conservative thinkers and journalists such as Arthur Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Peter Wehner, Yuval Levin, and Kate O’Beirne to discuss “solutions for the middle class.” The AEI panel was noteworthy not only for its content but also for the presence of Republican elected officials. It was the debut, however modest, of “reform conservatism” as a political force.

Plenty has been written about the need for the GOP to adopt economic policies that help middle-class families, and Room to Grow, the book put together by event co-sponsor YG Network, is the best primer I have seen on the various proposals that constitute reform conservatism. I do not doubt for a moment that if the Republican Party adopted Room to Grow as its platform tomorrow, then both the GOP and the country would enjoy a better future.


But that is the problem. Close to six years after Barack Obama’s election, the party as an institution is no closer to embracing the ideas of Salam, Douthat, Ponnuru, and Levin than it was when we celebrated the publication of Grand New Party at the Watergate in 2008. For reform conservatism to have any real-world application, it needs to find a presidential champion. And the prospects of that happening are not what you would call overwhelming.

I do not mean to sell the reformers short. The very fact that this discussion is taking place at all, and that the participants in the discussion include members of the House and Senate GOP leadership, is an achievement. Another achievement is a series of recent speeches delivered by Marco Rubio and Cantor and Lee. Those speeches discussed the importance of work and family, and proposed concrete ways to use the power of the federal government to improve work and family life. The speeches set a tone and established an approach that, in an ideal world (which this is not), would inform Republican campaigns and Republican legislative strategy.

That Rubio gave one of those speeches is both significant and revealing. Significant, because Rubio is likely to run for president and is therefore in a position to adopt the reform conservatives as his policy advisers and to champion their cause in the primaries, in the general election, and, Allah willing, in the formation of the FY2018 budget. But Rubio’s presence is also revealing, because he is the only national Republican identified with reform conservatism who is also widely and legitimately considered a presidential contender. Where is everyone else?

Well, at the moment, everyone else seems distinctly uninterested in reform conservatism. The governors are content to tell their own stories — Walker’s story of government reform, Kasich’s story of compassion, Perry’s story of economic growth, Christie’s story of bridge-building, as it were, between the executive and a hostile legislature. Jindal and Brownback might be interested in reform conservatism but seem not to have adopted its D.C. version. Mike Pence is certainly interested in policy innovations and in entitlement reforms — but after the rollout of his Medicaid privatization this week, he may think twice before announcing any further initiatives.

The legislators are not much different. Rand Paul advocates not reform conservatism but reform libertarianism. The conservatism Ted Cruz seems most interested in reforming is that practiced by the Senate Republican leadership. Jack Kemp and Edward Conard have more influence over Paul Ryan and his budget, which has served as the de facto governing document of the GOP since 2010, than do Mike Lee and Ross Douthat.