Jonah, you ask an interesting and sensible question. I suppose it’s possible that Bush intended to be a reformer of the sort I or Ramesh or Ross have in mind, although his compassionate conservatism did not have much to say to the middle class—which is the audience we have in mind, and the audience any political movement that wants a future ought to have in mind. (I offered a few thoughts on that subject here in response to Mike Gerson’s book about a year ago.) In any case, events soon turned him away from domestic affairs, and I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to argue that his administration, for all its strengths and weaknesses, has been an effort to test the kind of agenda I or others on your list have advocated. (As Ramesh points out, part of this has to do with the very different environment he was running in in 2000).
More importantly, though, I continue to be a little baffled by the idea that what you’re calling reform conservatism (and I’ll speak for myself, since I can’t speak for others on your list) is to be contrasted with the age of Reagan or the conservatism of the past several decades. Reform conservatism, if that is what I must call what I’m arguing for, is NOT a move away from Reaganism, it is a call for Reagan’s kind of instincts and attitudes applied to contemporary problems, and especially the concerns of middle class parents, who are the source of America’s economic, cultural, and moral strength. A large portion of the governing problems we now suffer from have been caused by bad government policy, and so must be fixed by better government policy. Others may not be caused by policy one way or another but could benefit from an application of conservative principles: a focus on stronger families, more personal and economic freedom, and leaner more efficient governing and regulatory institutions.
The point is not to reject what conservatives did in the 80s and 90s (which, unfortunately, was too often the theme of the 2000 Bush campaign). The point on the contrary is to build on those successes, which were in every instance examples of precisely a reform conservatism. Welfare reform is the model for health care and entitlement reform. The school choice movement is still the future of public education. Pro-growth economics obviously remain the path to prosperity.
And these fights need to be had on substantive grounds. Rush Limbaugh and Ross Douthat may disagree about what was best about Ronald Reagan, but do they disagree about the McCain health care plan? I think they don’t. The challenge for conservatives if we find ourselves in the minority in the next few years will be to offer substantive conservative-minded specifics as alternatives to the Democrats’ proposals. The philosophical arguments about the nature of conservatism are important and interesting, we all should and will engage in them. How could we resist? That we have such arguments is one of the greatest strengths of the conservative movement in America. But they will not yield conclusions, and in themselves they won’t do much either way for our electoral fortunes either. Substantive ideas and arguments will, and they will help conservatives unite as well. How and why social, fiscal, and national security conservatives belong under one tent is a lot harder to argue in theoretical terms than it is in practical terms. And there is a deep conservative philosophical truth there, a Burkean truth: politics must be practical and not just theoretical.
I think that is actually the meaning of reform conservatism, as I understand it at least: it is a case for applying conservative principles in practice and arguing for a governing vision that offers people a particular sense of what it would mean to elect real conservatives again. It’s not about changing direction, it’s about proposing ways of actually moving in the direction we’re facing.
Maybe that’s a start, anyway…surely more to say.