Populism and Reform

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Thomas Edsall argues in the New York Times that Democrats face a new threat in the rise of a conservatism that contests their claimed “ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity and fairness.” I think he is right about that; but because he looks at this conservatism through the lens of the liberal economic populism with which he has long been associated, he misunderstands the nature of that threat.

He is writing about “reform conservatism,” a school of thought that holds that Republicans need an updated agenda that enables most Americans to see that applying conservative principles will make life better for themselves, their children, and their country.

Edsall misunderstands this basic point. The threat, in his view, is that Republicans will be able to “harness the emotional power that stems from the anger many Americans feel as they helplessly watch the geyser of wealth shooting to the top.” I don’t think that anger at the wealthy is an especially strong force in American life, nor one that should be encouraged. The political potential of reform conservatism is primarily that it harnesses Americans’ aspirations for a better life, and secondarily that it harnesses their dissatisfaction with a government that too often blocks those aspirations. Most Americans don’t resent the rich or big business; they just don’t think the interests of the rich and big business are identical to theirs, and they want politicians to be responsive to theirs.

Edsall’s other errors follow from this one. He thinks that reform conservatives want Republicans to “abandon” the quest for lower tax rates on high earners, or on capital gains and dividends. There is of course a range of opinion among even small groups, and some reform conservatives are very skeptical about the power of tax-rate cuts to stimulate growth. (Edsall quotes Jim Pethokoukis expressing this view.) But the tax-reform proposals that most of us have touted—those of Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio—cut the top tax rate as well as the tax rates on dividends, capital gains, and business investment.

Edsall thinks reform conservatives are in the business of moving to the center, or about aping the Left’s rhetorical hostility to the rich. That preconception leaves him baffled by our actual behavior: “Despite his Tea Party credentials, Senator Lee has won enthusiastic praise from reform conservatives.” But there is no contradiction here. Senator Lee seeks to move Republicans, and American politics, to the right generally. His tax proposal, which combines the most pro-growth tax code we have had in decades with the most significant tax relief middle-class families have had since Reagan, is of a piece with that ambition.

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