The Corner

Rush Limbaugh, Conservative Reform, and Me

I have a vague recollection that on some occasion or other an article about Rush Limbaugh has failed to capture his actual point of view and he has been criticized, not for what he said, but for a misunderstanding of what he had said. That’s the basis on which Limbaugh criticizes me today.

His source is a Wall Street Journal story that suggests that I want Republicans to abandon an agenda of broad-based tax cuts in favor of one of targeted tax cuts and government subsidies. He says, reasonably enough, that these views—views that I don’t actually hold, but that he thinks I hold based on that story—amount to big government. And he then interprets a quote of mine in the story, about the need to adapt to changing circumstances, in light of that alleged view: He thinks I’m saying that we need to adapt to the public’s new embrace of big government.

There’s no reason for Limbaugh to be familiar with my actual views. But that’s not what I think at all. The tax proposal I favor is largely in keeping with the tax policies conservatives have been advocating for decades: a reduction in marginal tax rates, tax relief for as many Americans as possible, and pro-growth reforms. The main form of tax relief I have advocated, an expansion of the child credit, was part of the Contract with America and the Bush tax cuts of 2001. It is not narrowly targeted at interest groups: It would directly affect far more people than, say, the reduced capital-gains taxes that I also favor.

But the tax reform I have in mind is a little different from previous conservative tax proposals in that it places less emphasis on reducing the top marginal rate than Reagan did in 1981 (since he succeeded in lowering the top marginal rate) and more emphasis on payroll-tax relief (since it has become a bigger burden than the income tax for most people in the years after 1981) and on cutting taxes on business investment (since there are reasons for thinking those taxes have become a bigger problem over the years). That’s what I meant by adapting our policies for changing circumstances.

The health policies I have been promoting, meanwhile, would cut taxes, cut spending, cut regulation, and generally leave the federal government with less influence over American health care than it has had for decades. And I want the higher-education cartel broken up for reasons libertarians have been talking about for many years. To my mind, these proposals on taxes, health care, and higher education are the core elements of the “reform conservative” agenda.

Limbaugh concludes that reform conservatism sounds like “buying votes.” That accusation has been leveled by liberals at other conservative ideas over the years, and especially at conservative tax cuts. I think that it’s offering popular policies that also advance conservative, limited-government principles. It may be, of course, that I and like-minded conservatives have gone wrong in thinking through how to limit government in ways that are responsive to the circumstances of today, and if so we should certainly be criticized. I can’t say I enjoy being criticized, but I’d prefer it if I were criticized for my actual views.

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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