It was an important step forward for Republicans. They could have continued to deploy their anti-spending fervor against the discretionary side of the budget rather than taking on the larger, faster-growing, and politically trickier entitlements. They could, that is, have adopted a posture rather than a policy. Medicare reform was a sign the party was interested in governing again. Control of entitlements is after all a fiscal precondition for reform conservatism, or any other serious agenda.
Yet no larger agenda followed the Medicare initiative. Republicans’ advocacy of Medicare reform did not sink them, as Democrats had hoped, but neither did it supply an answer to voters’ concerns about the status of the American dream. And even as Ryan’s boldness got him a spot on the Republican ticket, it seems to have exhausted the appetite for innovation on the part of his colleagues. The Republicans were still narrowly focused on cutting spending.
A few Republicans started to adopt reformist themes following the 2012 election. Just a few weeks after it, Ryan criticized Republicans (though not his running mate) for having too little to say to Americans who do not run a business. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana took aim at the Republicans’ tendency to identify, and be identified, exclusively with the rich. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida touted a proposal to address Americans’ anxieties about the rising cost and uncertain payoff of college.
A few weeks after that, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, tried to devise a conservative agenda around the theme of “Making Life Work” for most Americans. Senator Mike Lee of Utah made the argument that limited-government conservatism should be seen as a communitarian credo, not just one for radical individualists.
Not many policy specifics were attached to these comments. Liberal commentators who considered the reformers almost uniformly made two critiques. The Republican party was too stupid, crazy, or corrupt to be interested in policies that addressed the concerns of people who are not rich; at most it would be interested only in repackaging. And conservatism itself had and could have no answers for Americans’ problems, which require a larger federal government steered by experts.
The latter criticism can survive any number of new conservative policy proposals: Liberals, with presuppositions different from those of conservatives, will generally consider their proposed policies inadequate. But beginning in the fall of 2013 Republican politicians began to put policy flesh on the bones of reform conservatism. Perhaps it’s because of the failure of the government shutdown; perhaps because of the passage of time since the 2012 election; perhaps because declining confidence in Obama and liberalism has created an opening that Republicans sense; perhaps it’s just a matter of chance. For whatever reason, there is suddenly an air of policy ferment surrounding the Republicans.
The first to move was Senator Lee. In September, he proposed a tax reform that broke with the Republican priorities of the previous decade. It had as its centerpiece an expansion of the child tax credit rather than a reduction in the top income-tax rate, and thus offered more tangible benefits for middle-class families than for high earners. The idea had long been talked up in the pages of NR, the Standard, and National Affairs. Lee followed up this plan with similarly innovative proposals on transportation and higher education. None of these ideas got much attention, but neither did any of them compromise Lee’s reputation as an enemy of centralized, overweening government. Lee was showing that conservatism could be solutions-oriented without being watered down — indeed, that it could become more robust as it took on the task of articulating specific alternatives to liberalism.
The Republican Study Committee, a group of 174 conservatives in the House, endorsed an alternative to Obamacare. Unlike previous health-care bills with wide support among congressional Republicans, it took on the distortions of the tax code that have kept millions of Americans locked out of health insurance.
In January 2014, Senator Rubio took up a set of modest but promising reforms to anti-poverty proposals that had also been outlined in NR. Senator John Thune of South Dakota ran with some ideas for fighting the long-term-unemployment crisis that Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute had popularized in those conservative publications: for example, a reform of the unemployment-benefit system designed to counteract the way it can sometimes discourage people from finding work.
Also in January, three Republican senators — Tom Coburn (Okla.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Richard Burr (N.C.) — proposed the strongest alternative to Obamacare to emerge from Congress so far. Like the RSC bill, the senators’ plan reworks the existing tax break for health insurance. Their version of reform would allow roughly as many people to get health insurance as Obamacare does, and maybe more people than Obamacare does. It does so, however, without Obamacare’s new taxes, reductions in freedom, threat of governmental rationing, and transformation of health insurers into public utilities. The plan is not perfect, but it is much better than Obamacare, and it does not put advocates of repeal in the position of having to strip health insurance from large numbers of people with nothing to replace it.
The new interest in conservative reforms to government suggests how the division among Republicans between tea partiers and the establishment might be transcended. There is no figure in Congress more associated with tea-party insurgency than Mike Lee, and no Republican has served longer in the Senate than his fellow Utahn Orrin Hatch. Yet both have contributed to the new spirit of reform among Republicans.
The public has long been sympathetic to conservative principles of small government and free markets. In recent years, though, Republicans have not done much to show the relevance of those principles to people’s lives. The promise of reform conservatism is that it will demonstrate that the principles are not just appealing in some abstract sense but can be made to work in practice.
Reform conservatism is making substantial political progress. But that progress is not yet complete. For it to go further, Republican presidential candidates will have to take it up. If enough congressional Republicans lead the way, they will follow.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.