Politics & Policy

The Reagan Roots of Reform Conservatism

(Reagan Library)
Some things old, some things new, some things borrowed.

There’s a movement sweeping the land, and if you want to call it “reform conservatism,” I agree that it’s good marketing. It promises a freshness and idealism that are appealing.

What is reform conservatism? Let’s quote from one of its key documents (emphases added):

Republicans . . . have always taken the side of the individual, whose freedoms are threatened by the big government that Democratic [ideas have] spawned. Our case for the individual is stronger than ever. A defense of the individual against government was never more needed. And we will continue to mount it. But we will redefine and broaden the debate by transcending the narrow terms of government and the individual; those are not the only two realities in America. Our society consists of more than that; so should the political debate. We will reemphasize those vital communities like the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, and others which are found at the center of society, between government and the individual. We will restore and strengthen their ability to solve problems in the places where people spend their daily lives and can turn to each other for support and help. . . . Republicans pledge a restoration of balance in American society. But society cannot be balanced by the actions of government or of individuals alone. Balance is found at society’s vital center, where we find the family and the neighborhood and the workplace.

And here is Yuval Levin, a superb thinker who is rightly and widely cited as a leader of the “reform conservatism” movement (emphasis mine again):

What these proposals are about involves using the institutions of civil society, the market economy, and local and state government to address problems from the bottom up rather than expecting the federal government to be able to do so from the top down. I think we should be very careful not to adopt the progressive assumption that anything that is not a national program is an individual responsibility and leaves people on their own to take care of themselves. Most of American life happens in the space between the two. . . . It is, again, a vision that consists not just of individuals and the state but of a vital expanse between the two in which Americans really live their lives and in which we are formed for liberty, properly understood. . . . [We must be] very concrete and practical — directed to helping American families deal with the particular problems they confront here and now.

But we should recognize that reform conservatism, while admirable and mostly on target both in broad philosophy and in specifics, isn’t so much new thinking as it is renewed thinking. The truth is that the first passage wasn’t written by my friends Ramesh Ponnuru or Yuval Levin or Peter Wehner; instead, it was from a document promulgated 34 years ago this very day — Monday, July 14, 1980 — at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, which was about to nominate Ronald Reagan for the presidency. This was the official Republican platform adopted at the convention (during which I served as a page).

Again and again, one can easily find striking parallels between that platform’s ideas — and even language — and those of today’s advocates of reform conservatism. For just one example: On energy, the 1980 platform complained about “new energy regulations and guidelines” whereby “the federal bureaucracy is busy from coast to coast. . . . Republicans believe in the common sense of the American people rather than a complex web of government controls and interventions that threaten America’s ability to grow.” Likewise, the chapter summary for Adam White’s essay on energy in Room to Grow, the new manifesto of the reform conservatives, reads thusly:

Congress must undertake serious oversight of regulatory agencies, to deter officials from misusing their power and improperly administering the laws. And White urges policymakers to take seriously the concerns that Americans voice regarding new energy infrastructure’s environmental impacts, as well as concerns about private property rights. It would be a mistake to downplay these concerns, when they are voiced in good faith by the very same middle-class Americans whom the new energy revolution is supposed to benefit.

More than anything else, though, today’s reform conservatives — much like former senator Rick Santorum, by the way, who has been using the same working-class appeal for decades, although reform conservatives rarely mention his name — emphasize that the family is the single most important of the Edmund Burkean “mediating institutions.” Ponnuru and company push an expanded child tax credit, which I think is more politically canny than macro-economically sound (one of the very few issues where I slightly part ways with Ponnuru), but their overall emphasis on the importance of the family economy and of family stability is both admirable and also right out of the 1980 Reagan–Kemp playbook. (The 1980 platform argued strenuously for “equity in the tax treatment of families.”)

None of which is meant to denigrate the reform-conservative enterprise. Far from it: Against the corporate-driven, idea-averse mindset that took hold under Speaker Dennis Hastert and that usually holds sway in the consultant-driven Republican National Committee, today’s reform advocates are a breath of fresh air. It is even more encouraging to see them joined in various ways by elected officials ranging from senators Mike Lee and Jeff Sessions to incoming House majority whip Steve Scalise and of course budget chairman Paul Ryan. All of these are emphasizing, just as the 1980 platform did, the interests less of the entrepreneur (although those interests are of course important) than of the worker.

Yet what gives pause is the developing notion that these themes are somehow a new type of conservatism. Adjectivized conservatism, like hyphenated Americanism, should always make us nervous, because it gives the impression that conservatism itself doesn’t already encompass reform, or compassion, or whatever modifier is the flavor of the day. (Back in the 1990s, long before G. W. Bush made “compassionate conservatism” a catch phrase, I was repeatedly writing speeches specifically combining those two words — not with first modifying the second, but instead to explain why the second already incorporates the first.)

Yes, it is of course true that conservative policies today should address the problems of the 2014 computer age, rather than the 1980 age of industrial decline. But it’s important to note that much of the Levin–Ponnuru movement is not so much a new school of thought as it is a reapplication of Reagan–Kemp thought (which itself was a reapplication of the uniquely American interplay within the sometimes-slightly-incongruent ideas of Madison, Burke, Locke, and Adam Smith). If much of the reformers’ message sounds new, then that’s evidence not that Reagan’s emphases aren’t quite relevant today but instead that much of the Republican and conservative establishment has fallen away from essential elements of Reagan’s approach while, at times, pushing an ideological caricature thereof.

Like the program of today’s erstwhile reformers, Reagan’s agenda always was worker-centered and family-first. Reagan’s agenda always was pragmatic rather than rigidly ideological — and Reagan himself, like today’s reformers, expressed far more affinity for “Main Street” than for big corporations. Kemp’s emphases always promoted the mediating institutions so beloved of today’s Burkean reformers (which is one reason Kemp found such common ground with former education secretary William Bennett).

The point is not that today’s reformers are merely copying Reagan’s policies. They aren’t. Much of their thinking, their reimagining of how to apply conservatism in the real world, is fresh and valuable. But it still is a reimagining, not a new imagining. And the fact that some see it as new is a sign not that Reagan conservatism was lacking, but that the political consultants and Mitt Romneys who have run the Republican party for 15 years have never practiced anything approaching Reagan’s conservatism, while the Rand Pauls of the world have cynically tried to hijack its mantle.

That’s why real Reagan conservatives ought to welcome the “reform conservative” effort, while keeping watch to ensure that the reformers do indeed remain grounded in true conservative soil. For, as Jack Kemp stressed in his speech at the 1980 convention, “This is the central purpose of a political party — to offer people superior ideas of government.”


The Latest



When I saw the chop-suey font in the CNN story I was reminded of a powdered-drink product from my youth: Funny Face.