Right Reforms
Adapted from the June 23, 2014, issue of NR.


Ramesh Ponnuru

Liberals are taking the publication of a new collection of essays by conservatives as an occasion to diagnose what ails the Right. The favor should be returned. Liberalism’s reaction to the rise of “reform conservatism” shows us one of its great flaws: an unwarranted confidence in its own basic intellectual health.

“Reform conservatism” is the label that has been attached to a group of writers who believe that the conservative agenda needs to be updated and broadened: that conservative reforms to the nation’s tax code, health-care system, higher-education policies, and safety net, among other institutions, would make it easier for the American middle class to grow and thrive, and that offering such reforms would make it easier for conservatism to grow and thrive. In May, the YG Network, a conservative group, published Room to Grow, a book presenting such an agenda. (I contributed an essay to it, and my wife, who works for that group, ran the project.)

Conservatives who have commented on the book have almost unanimously offered it handsome praise, and this consensus has leapt over some of the divisions that typically fracture the Right. When the American Enterprise Institute hosted a set of panels to discuss the book, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) was one of the speakers, and Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) was another. Both the bête noire and the champion of many tea-party groups could agree to laud Room to Grow.

Liberals, reasonably enough, have been less enthusiastic. Several commentators took the view that reform conservatism is merely a new coat of paint on a rusted right-wing agenda. Scott Winship’s chapter argues, among other things, that transferring many families from Supplemental Security Income to other aid programs would reduce the risk of multigenerational dependence on federal support. Michael Hiltzik, writing for the Los Angeles Times, inveighed against the “contempt for the underprivileged” supposedly behind such ideas.

Other liberals have noticed that most Republicans have yet to take up these reformist ideas and then concluded that they have no political future. Taken together, these common reactions put reform conservatives in a no-win situation: Either the reformists’ proposals have been made before by Republicans, in which case they can be dismissed as retreads of old ideas, or they have not, in which case they can be dismissed as politically irrelevant.

A few liberals have avoided this simple-mindedness. William Galston devoted one of his weekly Wall Street Journal columns to the book. Galston summarized several of the chapters and appeared to agree with much of their content. He thinks, however, that the book is too timid about changing the Republican platform and disagrees with some of the specific political judgments implicit in the book. (He does not think conservatives will get anywhere advocating a replacement for Obamacare and faults the book for saying little about immigration, which he considers a central problem for Republicans.)

E. J. Dionne Jr. has written the most thorough liberal examination of reform conservatism. His essay appeared in the journal Democracy a few days before Room to Grow was published, but it shows that Dionne has been reading the reformers attentively enough to give him an advantage over some commentators who weighed in afterward. Like Galston, he agrees with many of the reformers’ points but wishes we would go further. He wants us to make a sharper break with conservatism as it exists today by accepting a larger role for government, moving left on social issues, and criticizing our fellow conservatives more bluntly.

Dionne’s analysis, it seems to me, goes off track by setting reform conservatism in opposition to tea-party conservatism. The reformers, he writes, did not find the Republican party’s “wall of opposition” to President Obama’s agenda during his first term “particularly appealing,” and tea-party primary victories “sent a chill through the reform cause.” He thinks we are too frightened of our tea-party adversaries to denounce them. He believes that we “pander to anti-Obama feeling” and refuse to acknowledge the moderation of many of his policies, including especially Obamacare, because we “don’t want to offend” people to our right.

I’m confident that I do not speak only for myself in saying that my opposition to almost all of Obama’s policies is quite sincere. And about three-quarters of the proposing legislation that bears the reform-conservative imprint would not exist if not for the tea-party victories of Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio. (Dionne writes off Lee as merely trying to rebrand conservatism, which I don’t think does justice to his record of introducing creative new bills.)


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