The Path to Conservative Reform

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Prompted by last week’s launch of Room to Grow, Matthew Continetti raises some concerns about whether its ideas about replacing Obamacare, breaking the higher-education cartel, and so forth can prevail. The first has to do with the 2016 presidential field: “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.” The second has to do with the incompleteness of the agenda presented in the book. A pro-middle-class conservatism, he says, cannot favor “an amnesty that will incentivize a flood of cheap labor into this country,” or ignore the problem of trade with China, or “run[] away from the hot-button social issues of abortion, marriage, guns, welfare, and affirmative action.”

I don’t disagree with Continetti on these points, exactly (with the likely exception of trade policy). But he may have a slightly different idea of the purpose of the book and the “reform conservative” project. I see it as an attempt to devise conservative policies that address some of the country’s most pressing problems, with a particular focus on some issues where conservatives have in recent years had too little to offer the voting public.

I don’t see it, and I don’t think most other people described as “reform conservatives” see it, as an attempt at a factional takeover of the Republican party. If we were trying to create, say, a new libertarian Republican party, we would have to explain what that would mean for monetary policy, or immigration, or the courts, or defense. Because Room to Grow is not trying to do any such thing, it can be silent on a great many important subjects.

Some of those subjects are ones where conservatives seem to me already to be in basically the right place, such as guns and abortion; some of them are subjects where conservatives are divided. I myself oppose “comprehensive immigration reform,” while other contributors seem to favor it. I’m happy to keep having that argument, but I also think there’s value in getting conservatives on opposing sides of it to embrace conservative policies on higher education, etc.

Similarly, I would rather not see a presidential candidate become identified as the champion of reform conservatism. I’d prefer to see a lot of conservative candidates adopting (and adapting) some of these ideas. If that happens and the contributors to the book end up voting for different candidates in the next cycle of presidential primaries, it will mean that the ideas have had a widespread, positive influence. To close on a note of agreement, though, Continetti is certainly right that we have a long way to go.