David Brooks’s Nostalgia

by Patrick Brennan

David Brooks’s column yesterday highlights the excellent content of the latest issue of National Affairs: Michael Strain of AEI’s jobs agenda for the Right, Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders’s call for “mobility grants,” Henry Olsen’s call for a rightly ordered populism, and more, an agenda that Brooks calls “the conservatism of skeptical reform,” “oriented, first, around social problems, not [runaway] government.” I’m glad Brooks is reminding the readers of the Times that conservatives have important, thoughtful policy ideas (if ones that will likely not benefit the paper’s readers), but he is actually a bit pessimistic. He writes:

If you just listened to Republican politicians, you’d have almost no sense that conservative thinking has changed much since Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney over a year ago. But if you hang around the conservative policy wonks, and read certain conservative magazines, the picture is quite different.

If you listened to Senator Marco Rubio this week, for instance (a Republican politician who, if anything, is worried about his relationship with the conservative base), you’d have heard an ambitious call for rethinking how the federal government should spend money on poverty, not a call for a radical reduction in such spending, and praise for wage subsidies that calls for reforming the Earned Income Tax Credit. If you’ve listened to Senator Mike Lee’s policy proposals, rather than obsessing over his aggressive tactics during the federal-government shutdown, you’ve heard a call for a tax system that’s more generous to the middle class, and more friendly to families; a reform of federal transportation spending to address the clogged highway system that keeps Americans away from their families; and more. Other young leaders in the party — Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Kevin McCarthy stand out — have so far focused on offering more reform-friendly rhetoric, but in time, I don’t doubt they will embrace new policies that can address the serious problems faced by America’s middle and lower classes.

I don’t want to be overly optimistic: There obviously remains a substantial gulf between what’s written in National Affairs and the rhetoric and preferred policies of many, if not most, Republican politicians. But that gap is shrinking, and Brooks would do well to have noted that, rather than write a column that he could have written in 2011. (For a hopelessly muddled and hostile discussion of this real conflict, see this post at The New Republic, where the sometimes thoughtful and interesting Richard Yeselson quotes Brooks as saying “this [reform-minded] conservatism is populist in means, not ends” — when the whole point is that it’s the other way around.) That said, Brooks seems overly optimistic in arguing that “the emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum.” The factions to which Brooks refers aren’t just to lose their appeal because they don’t have policy plans of their own — the challenge will be in convincing conservative voters and politicians that the kind of ideas expressed in National Affairs are, in fact, “more populist” than apocalyptic obstinacy.

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