Magazine | April 11, 2016, Issue

Reform Conservatism’s Future

The GOP must not disregard policy innovation.

After Republicans lost the 2012 election, three theories arose among them about what had gone wrong and what needed to change. The course of the Republican presidential primaries has already invalidated two of them, while probably making the third one impossible to follow in the short term.

The first theory was outlined in an “autopsy” report about the election from the Republican National Committee. It urged the party to embrace “comprehensive immigration reform,” create an active presence in minority communities, talk less about same-sex marriage, and invest in data analysis.

The second theory, voiced by conservative activists and talk-show hosts, held that Republicans had erred by nominating moderates such as John McCain and Mitt Romney and by increasing federal spending in the Bush years: Demoralized conservatives had stayed home. The party needed to present voters with a purer conservative vision.

The third theory, advanced by a small group of writers who came to be described as “reform conservatives,” argued that voters see Republicans as narrowly focused on promoting the economic interests of big business and rich people. That impression had hardened because the Republican economic agenda — free trade, deregulation, tax cuts focused on corporations and high earners, and reductions in future entitlement spending — had grown stale, and no longer spoke to most people’s concerns. The answer was to modify and add to that agenda by applying conservative insights to today’s circumstances. The point of the resulting new agenda would be not just to promise to shrink the government but also to show how shrinking the government would help people solve their concrete problems. This was the argument I made in National Review’s post-election issue in 2012.

There was some overlap among these theories. Someone who favored greater ideological purity could also want Republicans to make more use of advanced technologies for identifying persuadable voters: Senator Cruz’s campaign has followed both prescriptions. Some Republicans thought it important both to offer legal status to illegal immigrants and to modernize the party’s economic agenda. That ended up being Senator Rubio’s combination of views.

Most of the reform conservatives, though, rejected the autopsy’s counsel on immigration — which proved to be a dead end even before the primaries began. The kind of immigration bill that both parties’ leaders favored drew too much opposition from Republican voters for Republican politicians to cooperate in passing it. The effort badly divided the party. And it further alienated the working-class white voters who already saw Republicans as champions of the boardroom rather than the shop floor.

Donald Trump’s success in the primaries, meanwhile, has undercut the purist argument. Trump is anything but a consistent conservative, and he talks much more about running the government more efficiently than about downsizing it. He has often talked about increasing government power — for example, to set prices in health care and to discourage criticism of him in the press. He’s not interested in limited government, and a lot of Republicans — a plurality in most contests so far — have not held it against him. The purist argument, remember, was that nominating a true conservative would motivate conservatives who had been skipping elections to come out and vote. This theory never had much evidence behind it. But the primaries have delivered a fatal blow. It is not very credible that non-voters are more ideologically conservative than Republican primary voters are.

The reform-conservative theory about the weakness of the party’s agenda, on the other hand, has held up pretty well. The theory may even have underestimated that weakness. Reformers emphasized that Republican economics left swing voters cold, but it turns out that a lot of Republican voters are not greatly attached to it either.

We argued that if Republicans did not supply conservative answers to voters’ economic anxieties, the political market would supply attractive but non-conservative answers. We feared that vacuum would be filled with mostly bad ideas by the Democratic nominee in a general election; it has instead also been filled with mostly bad ideas by Trump in the Republican primaries.

But if some reform-conservative premises have been vindicated, reform-conservative policies have played almost no role in those primaries. Senator Rubio did the most to embrace those ideas. In mid 2014, he started echoing reformist themes: the need to apply conservative thinking in fresh ways, the potential of conservative reforms to reduce the cost of living and thereby make a difference in people’s lives. He came out for an Obamacare replacement that made it possible for nearly everyone to purchase at least catastrophic coverage while deregulating the system. He sponsored legislation allowing people to finance higher education in new ways. And he advocated tax relief for middle-class parents, not just high earners (although his plan also gave high earners very large tax cuts).

He did not talk about these initiatives very much, however, perhaps viewing them as helpful in a general election rather than in a Republican primary. Rubio talked about his tax plan twice in the debates, both times in response to criticism. He was more associated with his 2013 immigration bill and a very hawkish-sounding foreign policy than he was with any domestic agenda. He came across less as an innovator than as a younger, more articulate, and Hispanic version of George W. Bush. He ended up doing well among affluent, college-educated Republican voters but not connecting with the more economically stressed and disaffected voters he needed.

Which is not to say that it’s obvious that Rubio would have done much better if he had run harder on reformist policies. He may have been doomed anyway by his lack of an organization, or by his apparent strategy of being most Republicans’ second choice. The primaries have not shown great demand by Republican voters for policy talk of any type — although there is a chicken-or-egg question here: Maybe they do not care about policy in large part because nobody has tried to show its relevance to their lives. Be that as it may, the primaries have certainly shown that Republican politicians have more freedom to innovate than they have generally thought.

That fact could influence the shape of conservatism in years to come. It could even be relevant to conservative action this year. Some conservatives are talking about running a third-party campaign if Trump wins the nomination. If the point of that campaign is merely to give conservatives a candidate for whom they can vote in good conscience, then it may as well content itself with copying past Republican platforms.

An independent conservative bid could, however, adopt a more ambitious goal. If no presidential candidate gets 270 electoral votes, the House of Representatives determines the winner. The vast bulk of the polling we have seen so far suggests that Trump has very little capacity to keep Hillary Clinton below that number. If that holds true, then an independent conservative candidate would have to win some states that President Obama won last time in order to send the election to the House.

Which means that this conservative candidate would have to find a way to appeal to ideologically conservative voters (as the purists say) while also appealing to less ideological voters who backed Obama (as the autopsy suggested). That sounds like a job for reform conservatism, or something like it.

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

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