by Yuval Levin
Recent days have seen a spate of enlightening and encouraging writings about the direction that Republican domestic policy ought to take. They all share a crucial insight in common: that conservatives need to more carefully distinguish the means from the ends of their agenda to better apply their timeless principles and enduring goals to today’s and tomorrow’s policy challenges.
In a superb essay in the latest issue of Commentary, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson consider how Republicans have found themselves in their current predicament and suggest a path back to majority status that involves a combination of policy proposals and refinements of tone and emphasis. Both their diagnosis and their cure are well worth your while.
In yesterday’s New York Times, Ramesh laid out the case for modernizing the right’s understanding of the country’s key economic challenges, and showed how enduring economic principles applied to new problems would result in new policy proposals and priorities rather than the same ones that worked in the 1980s. I long ago set up a keyboard shortcut on my computer for “I agree with Ramesh.” It saves a lot of time. But I think this op-ed is a particularly helpful encapsulation of the case for applying to new problems a set of ideas and ideals that have helped the country address some old problems but that conservatives have not sufficiently put to use because we have not sufficiently grappled with how America’s global position, cultural predicaments, tax policies, monetary policies, and economic arrangements have changed since the last major revolution in conservative policy thinking. I very much concur with his four specific examples of what a new reform agenda could involve—pro-family tax reform, consumer-driven health reform, monetary policy targeted to stable NGDP growth, and patent reform. (The list led me to conclude that National Affairs needs to publish an essay on intellectual-property reform, since we have published extensive and detailed discussions of what the other three could look like, e.g. here, here, and here, and of course Ramesh himself has written a great deal about them before too.)
And here at NRO over the weekend, AEI’s James Pethokoukis had a piece about a few familiar conservative policy proposals—the flat tax, the balanced budget amendment, and the gold standard—that he believes might, at best, make much more sense in principle than in practice today, and that stand in the way of more practical and politically appealing reforms just now.
Particularly in his discussion of how to think about the budget question, Pethokoukis gets at a key set of issues that the others generally didn’t take up: the immense fiscal imbalance of the federal budget, driven especially by the health-entitlement programs and calling for an intelligent mix of policy and political creativity. The relative dearth of discussion of that subject in these most welcome calls for renewal highlights another point to which I think they paid too little heed: the increasing presence in the Republican legislative agenda—at both the state and federal levels—of just the type of thinking they all hope to see.
If you were writing a call for a revival of conservative policy thinking just two years ago, you probably would have started with the need for plausible and sophisticated health-entitlement reform. But in the intervening two years, thanks very largely to Paul Ryan and the House Republican budgets, congressional Republicans have backed a very plausible and sophisticated Medicare reform idea—a transformation of the system into a hybrid of defined-benefit and defined-contribution insurance that guarantees seniors comprehensive coverage (and even gives them the option of staying in a fee-for-service system) while trying out the most plausible path for the kind of major cost savings and productivity improvements that American health care will require in the coming years. They have endorsed (and essentially all voted for, rather amazingly) the best version of this approach—a premium-support system governed by a competitive bidding process—and have mounted a smart and effective political case in its defense. It’s not a perfect proposal, to be sure (most notably, we shouldn’t wait ten years to start it), but it’s an excellent one.
That’s a very large change in the right direction in just the last two years. And the House budgets have included other important, if less prominent, changes too: in their general approach to tax reform, in their proposed transformation of the federal anti-poverty programs, and more. Those budgets have laid out in broad outlines a vision of conservative governance that speaks to some of today’s most significant economic problems. It hasn’t carried with it a corresponding transformation of Republican rhetoric around those issues, but it’s a serious start. Meanwhile, Republican governors have been advancing very promising ideas in education reform, tax reform, pension reform, tort reform, health care, and the relationships of states with public-sector unions. All of this is only a start too, to be sure, but it is a start, and it has happened in a very short time.
This isn’t really to disagree with what Gerson, Wehner, Ponnuru, and Pethokoukis are proposing, of course, but it’s to suggest that the premise of their proposals is a bit too grim. There is a huge amount of work to be done to modernize the Republican domestic policy agenda, but that work is not simply pushing against decades of standing inertia: It certainly has some such pushing to do, but it can also build on several years of incremental but very encouraging progress among the politicians and on even more years of substantive and sophisticated laying of the ground by assorted experts, wonks, legislative staffs, and right-leaning academics around the country.
Connecting that work to more concrete legislative proposals and backing it with political capital and engaging rhetoric in a way that will move the country will be no simple matter. It will above all require prominent champions, and especially a Republican presidential candidate—which is really what today’s advocates of a revival are trying to pave the way for, I would think. But it is a plausible and achievable task, and success is readily imaginable. The next Republican presidential candidate would probably have trouble finding policy advisors who won’t be on board with much of this kind of agenda.
And that candidate will also find arrayed against him a Democratic Party far less capable of a similar essential retooling. The nature of their coalition and the costs of the ways they have chosen to wield their power in the age of Obama mean that the Democrats are unable to offer much of a growth agenda to the middle class. It’s certainly true that Republicans are clinging to some worn out ideas, but the Democrats suffer from a far worse version of the same problem. Addressing today’s slow growth would require modernizing our entitlement system and equipping the economy for vastly improved productivity and effectiveness, especially in energy, health-care, and education, and the Democrats just can’t go there. Modern is the last thing you’d call their agenda. They have just enacted a health-policy reform that is the epitome of the Great Society’s mid-1960s managerial mindset, and their solution to today’s slow growth roughly amounts to public works projects. They are surely better at talking about the plight of the modern middle class, and they try to throw various benefits at it and to tax the wealthy to soothe their consciences, but they stand opposed to the modernization that yesterday’s ill-designed public programs and tomorrow’s global economy call for. Indeed, on every one of these fronts they are actually far worse prepared for the policy challenges of the 21st century than the Democrats of the 1990s were.
All of which is simultaneously encouraging and depressing. But I think it’s more of the former, and public arguments like those from Gerson, Wehner, Ponnuru, and Pethokoukis are high among the reasons.