Conservative Reform and Liberal Exhaustion

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In the latest NR, I respond to liberal critics of “reform conservatism.”

“The promise of reform conservatism is that it will move the right to more moderate and practical ground,” Dionne writes. More practical, yes; but not, in any conventional sense, more moderate. I rather think of reform conservatism as expanding the Right’s agenda by making it more aggressive in such areas as higher education and health care, where for decades we have been passive while liberals have tried, to some extent successfully, to set policy.

Both Dionne and Galston draw a parallel between the efforts of Republican reformers today and those of the Democratic Leadership Council in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is quite a bit to the analogy, which is why people often make it. What the analogy misses is also important. The Democrats of the 1980s had to respond to a country that was largely happy with Republican governance and to specific conservative policy successes; much of what they had to do took the form of concessions to conservatism. Today the Republicans must reorient themselves in a country that is persistently unhappy and where liberal policy successes are too hard to detect to be the basis for concessions.