Politics & Policy

Reforming ‘Reform Conservatism’?

(Tom Brenner/Reuters)
Where it stands now, and where it goes next

InThe Next Coalition of the Right,” their feature for the March 23, 2020, issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin examine the legacy of “reform conservatism,” which argued that “there is a role for better public policy in empowering Americans to build stronger families and communities.” The Trump era has fractured the erstwhile reformocon movement, Ponnuru and Levin argue, but a philosophical synthesis that can “unite the partisans of markets with the partisans of tradition into a functional coalition” offers a way forward. We invited some friends and observers to offer their thoughts on the article and the broader questions it raises.

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How Trump Cleared the Way for REFORM CONSERVATISM to evolve

By Matthew Continetti

Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin are too level-headed and modest to give the reformocons their due. Let me do it for them: The 2016 election confirmed the reformocon analysis of Republican politics while removing some of the barriers to the pursuit of reform. The question is not whether reform conservatism has a future. It is what shape that future will take.

When Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam published “The Party of Sam’s Club” in The Weekly Standard’s November 14, 2005, issue, they observed that the GOP was “an increasingly working-class party, dependent for its power on super-majorities of the white working class vote, and a party whose constituents are surprisingly comfortable with bad-but-popular liberal ideas like raising the minimum wage, expanding clumsy environmental regulations, or hiking taxes on the wealthy to fund a health care entitlement.” All true. We subsequently learned those same constituents are equally comfortable with bad-but-populist nationalist ideas such as withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the precipitous removal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Douthat and Salam said the “economic anxieties of middle and working-class voters are likely to be the domestic political issue of the coming years.” Levin said the same in “Putting Parents First,” in the December 4, 2006, issue of the Standard: “The worry of middle- and lower-class families arises from a genuine tension between the two things they most eagerly strive to do: build families and build wealth.” Right again.

Douthat and Salam called for “matching the culture war rhetoric of family values with an economic policy that places the two-parent family — the institution best capable of providing cultural stability and economic security — at the head of the GOP agenda.” They recognized that the family is the essential mediating institution between individual and state, and that managerial interference in family and church drives religious voters to support Republicans.

Voters’ anxieties are not just economic. They are also cultural. It was not only the financial bailouts but also the immigration and national-security policies of the Obama administration that, by 2016, contributed to an atmosphere of elitist self-dealing, executive lawlessness, and rampant terrorism. The profound and accelerating changes of globalization, digital and social media, and gender neutrality (and malleability), as well as the identity of the Democratic nominee, made the stakes for many Republicans seem nothing less than apocalyptic. The Party of Sam’s Club became the Party of Trump.

Trump supplied elements that had been missing from the reformocon critique of Republican politics. He highlighted two issues — immigration and trade with China — that had been conspicuously absent from the 2014 reformocon manifesto, Room to Grow. He offered a response to the global economy that, while flawed, was nonetheless more compelling than its main alternative: a bipartisan celebration of global integration informed (or cowed) by political correctness. His refusal to honor the shibboleths of the party establishment allowed some reformocon ideas, such as an expanded child tax credit and paid family leave, to move closer to reality during the first years of his administration.

Needless to say, there is no love lost between reformocons and President Trump. And many of the alternative reform conservatisms now on offer, from Catholic integralism to industrial policy to anti-monopoly politics, are far removed from the reformers’ original vision. It is nonetheless an irony of history that a presidential candidate who began with the faintest of associations with the conservative movement would establish the conditions for a renewal of conservative thought and practice. Good thing that conservatives have learned — or ought to have learned — to appreciate paradox.

Matthew Continetti is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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The Right Needs Something Bolder than What Reformocons Have to Offer

By Daniel McCarthy

Policies are only as good as the way of life that they serve. The weakness of reform conservatism, like “compassionate conservatism” and “the opportunity society” before it, is that the way of life it serves is an illusion. The economy and culture that America’s leadership class created after the end of the Cold War are progressively transformative to such an extent that conservatism just comes to mean accepting defeat with good cheer. Wage subsidies and pro-family tax credits — to cite two policies reform conservatives have championed — will not counteract the socially uprooting effects of free trade, liberal immigration, and the privileging of finance and “the information economy” over the materially productive (and hence localized) economy.

The American economy is moving in a direction that increasingly requires a college-educated workforce, and that increases the professional distance between workers with and without college degrees. Regional cities are important and growing — and they’re growing more politically “blue,” not only because of immigration into the U.S., which tends to concentrate in these cities, but also because of the nature of the workforce and its education. Young professionals have received at least 16 years of ideological formation in K-through-B.A. education, and for the last four of those years, they have most likely been removed from their family and faith environments.

This has been going on for a long time among the children of the elite. But the elite had ways of guarding its traditions. When the children of all classes are put through this machine, the result is the radical attenuation of traditional loyalties. And while young professionals are free to reattach themselves to traditions of their choice, an intermediary layer of mental habits that conform to the educational establishment will remain. This is one reason why so many conservatives have little trouble conforming to the latest social changes instituted by the Left, and why they may in fact feel more uncomfortable with a more populist or strongly traditionalist form of the Right.

This puts the problem crudely, and the tale can be told from other angles. But the gist would be the same: “reform” and “conservatism” can only ever be superficial categories when one accepts this direction in which America has been moving for 30-odd years. If this movement is inevitable, the product of technological necessity, as some claim, then anything other than reform conservatism is impossible — or rather, anything else is just a howl of protest, whether by Tea Party populists or Trumpian nationalists. But those on the right who do not believe the overall shape of the future is already determined want a program more daring and different from 21st-century liberalism than reform conservatism offers.

Daniel McCarthy is the director of journalism-fellowship programs at the Fund for American Studies and the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

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The Reformocon Agenda Doesn’t Match the Realities of GOP Governance

By Luke Thompson

I find the piece by Yuval and Ramesh puzzling in the same way I found reform conservatism puzzling: I cannot tell if I’m reading a critique of political rhetoric or of public policy.

Reform conservatives often muddied Republican campaign rhetoric that emphasized budgets and job-creation via tax cuts, and Republican policymaking that consistently abandoned market orthodoxy. As a rhetorical matter, I share their views. Libertarian arguments rarely make good politics, especially when it comes to popular entitlement programs, even as those programs careen toward insolvency.

But that rhetoric hardly aligns with a Bush presidency that passed No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and the Energy Policy Act; nor with a Trump presidency that has been anti-trade and immigration-restrictionist, and whose sole major legislative achievement was hardly a sop to the coastal high earners in the donor class.

As for the immediate failure to pass legislation, they exaggerate the role of ideas in policymaking at the expense of institutions. Political coalitions generate ideas in the wilderness, but cultivate consensus in the House minority. The Senate minority has work to do on committees, appointments, and foreign policy. Political dynamics drive a House majority opposed to the president to maximize contrast. A House minority is a think tank that holds roll-call votes.

Republicans owned the House for all but Obama’s first two years, leaving little time for them to find consensus. In this, they mirrored the Democrats, who, from 2007 to 2009, failed to coalesce around answers to major environmental-, immigration-, and health-care-policy questions.

Finally, the policy paralysis from 2017 to 2019 stemmed from tactical and strategic mistakes by a small number of individuals in key positions at key moments, from failures more personal than ideological.

President Trump’s inaugural presented an agenda, but he failed to lead on his priorities. Rather than overhaul America’s immigration system up front, he waited six months to endorse the Cotton-Perdue RAISE Act. Likewise, after then-speaker Paul Ryan crafted a border-adjustment tax to force Mexico to pay for a wall, the president balked when retailers predictably squawked, and the plan collapsed. Since then, Trump has walked away from several deals to fund the wall through appropriations. Lastly, the president squandered the lame-duck session passing a bipartisan criminal-justice-reform bill.

For his part, Ryan was overly devoted to using the budget-reconciliation schedule to repeal Obamacare and pass a tax cut successively, neither of which tested Democratic solidarity the way a major infrastructure bill would have. Even still, Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell came one Senate vote away from repealing and replacing Obamacare.

In sum, recent failures were not as severe as presented, and those failures stemmed more from personal pique and preciousness than a lack of ideas. Reform conservatives may reject Bush’s focus on public education, energy prices, and drug costs for seniors. They may prefer more emphasis on working families in Republican fiscal policy. Fine. Those are debates worth having. But both Republican administrations this century have embraced expanding federal power in pursuit of concrete social ends. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Luke Thompson is a Republican political consultant.

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Where Reform Conservatism Goes from Here

By Robert VerBruggen

As a third-tier fellow traveler of the “reformocon” movement, I found little to disagree with in Ramesh Ponnuru’s and Yuval Levin’s new piece, though I was somewhat dismayed to see them referring to their project mostly in the past tense. As they suggest at various points in their essay, the rise of Trump proved the reform conservatives right in certain ways, and also pointed the way to a more vigorous and populist version of what Ponnuru et al. have been saying for years. Here I’d like to briefly outline a path forward, whether or not the “reformocon” label falls into disuse.

What Trump undeniably showed was that a candidate like him — personally and ideologically — can win both the Republican primaries and the Electoral College. If mainstream GOP voters fracture, a populist can end up with the nomination, at which point those mainstream GOP voters will consolidate behind the winner (especially if that winner takes the right stances on common “dealbreaker” issues such as abortion and guns). And Trump’s message played well in the all-important Rust Belt swing states.

But conservatives must not overlearn the lessons of Trump. His path to the presidency was narrow: More Republicans voted for other candidates than for him in the primaries, and he lost the popular vote in the general election by two points to a candidate as poor as Hillary Clinton. Then Democrats took the House in 2018, thanks in large part to a suburban anti-Trump backlash. The GOP may be Trump’s party now, but there’s no reason the 2024 nominee needs to be a down-the-line Trumpist. I’m not sure we want too many more victories like the one in 2016 anyway.

A new conservative movement should look to achieve a few things at once. Its platform must of course represent good policy that is consistent with conservative principles. But it must also be popular enough with the Republican base to win primaries, popular enough with the general public to win general elections, popular enough in swing states to win the Electoral College, and populist enough to capture the energy and anger that motivates a significant part of the party’s current base. That last bit might be what the reformocons lacked most. Even their signature policy, the child tax credit, isn’t that popular in opinion polls, to say nothing of bringing out rally crowds.

The platform clearly needs to address immigration and trade more prominently than reformocons usually do — for reference, consider that the 2014 reformocon manifesto Room to Grow included chapters on neither — but without alienating the general public. Regarding the former, I have suggested aggressive measures to orient the immigration system around skills rather than family connections: Bring in people who create jobs and pay enormous amounts of taxes to benefit natives, not low-skilled workers who happen to have relatives in the country. Regarding the latter, haphazard tariffs do not appear to be working out particularly well, but there is plenty the U.S. can do to confront bad actors such as China.

There are ways to give stereotypical reformocon issues a harder edge that will appeal more to populists, too. Safety-net policy is a good example: Reformocon proposals such as wage subsidies and improvements to the Earned Income Tax Credit must be aggressively tied to traditional conservative ideas, such as work requirements for food stamps and housing assistance. The two complement each other well and have since the 1990s, when EITC expansions and welfare reform went hand-in-hand. Americans want work to pay, but they don’t want to pay people not to work.

Above all, though, what the next iteration of reform conservatism might need is a charismatic candidate to deliver its message in a captivating and compelling, rather than dryly wonkish, way. Who that might be, I have no idea.

Robert VerBruggen is a policy writer for National Review.

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