The Corner

Missing the Point of Conservative Reform

Ryan Cooper’s recent Washington Monthly article about “conservative reformers” has inspired a number of other liberals to write about the topic. The consensus: Way too much conservatism, not enough reform. Which is hardly surprising, since the practical definition of reform the liberal discussants share is “movement in the direction of liberalism,” which is not something that most of the conservative reformers they’re talking about are interested in. Michael Tomasky’s screed in the Daily Beast today is typical in treating the choices open to conservative writers as embracing liberal policies or doing PR for conservative ones. Actually, he goes further than that: To be a good reformer a conservative has to agree that the vast bulk of conservatives are insane. I think the essay tells us a good deal more about Tomasky than about anything relevant to the future of conservatism.

All of these articles — even the original one by Cooper, which was the best of them — implicitly take the view that conservative reformism cannot amount to anything unless it impresses liberals. (People who enjoy reading ideological self-congratulation from Paul Krugman will want to follow Tomasky’s links.) If a conservative looking at the attempts to reform liberalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s had adopted a similar approach, he might well have concluded that there was nothing to these New Democrats: After all, they remained committed to big government — they even wanted to expand its reach on health care — and social liberalism. Some conservatives said exactly this sort of thing. But the New Democrats were not chiefly trying to collect plaudits from conservatives, and went forward with their actual project.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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