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Why the Skepticism of ‘Reformocons’?

Also in today’s Jolt, a look at Reform Conservatives and the mood of today’s GOP grassroots . . . 

Why the Skepticism of ‘Reformocons’? Are We Too Angry to Talk Policy?

Yes, it’s usually a mistake to read the comments under any article.

But I’m struck by the amount of skepticism and animosity that greets a mention of the word “reformocon.” Maybe Eric Cantor has become such a controversial figure that his status as a former employer of some of the reformocon-minded staffers at the Conservative Reform Network — formerly known as the YG Network or Young Guns Network — instantly creates distrust or wariness.

The “reformocon” agenda — to the extent it can be boiled down — is to find conservative reforms of existing local, state, and federal laws to help the middle class. Start with the problems facing the middle class — high tuition, high health-care costs, high cost of living, slow wage growth — and come up with ways to get government out of the way as a driver of costs, or figure out how to get the government to achieve the required goals more efficiently and with more choice for individuals. The reformocon crowd overlaps a lot with National Review, past and present — Ramesh Ponnuru, James Pethokoukis, Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Pete Wehner, Kate O’Beirne, and so on.

(Insert all standard caveats here: I know most of these people and CRN’s policy director, April Ponnuru. Yes, she’s Ramesh’s wife, so just how likely is it I’m going to say nasty things about her?)

What I don’t get is this claim that “reformicon” is somehow a code term for a big-government conservatism . . . also known as not conservatism.

One of the refrormicon crusades is rolling back or repealing licensing requirements in professions and jobs where they simply aren’t needed and function as an obstacle to small-business creation and stifle competition for current license-holders. You’ve heard the insane tales of runaway bureaucratic regulation: “Iowa requires people who want to cut and style hair to receive 2,100 hours of education and training at a cosmetology school.”

You know how we know when a conservative idea is particularly popular? When President Obama’s budget mentions it . . . and naturally, calls for spending more money studying the problem:

The Budget seeks to reduce occupational licensing barriers that keep people from doing the jobs they have the skills to do by putting in place unnecessary training and high fees. The Budget proposes a $15 million increase for grants to states and partnerships of states for the purpose of identifying, exploring, and addressing areas where occupational licensing requirements create an unnecessary barrier to labor market entry or labor mobility and where interstate portability of licenses can support economic growth and improve economic opportunity, particularly for dislocated workers, transitioning service members, veterans, and military spouses.

Cue the nanny-state liberal shrieking, “Sure, you start with an anarchic, Wild West world of unlicensed hair-braiders, and then next you’ll dramatically lower the amount of training and licensing requirements to handle legal matters!”

The reformicons say . . . in fact, that’s precisely the kind of idea we want to explore:

One possible solution is underway in Washington state, which, the Post reports, is embarking on an “ambitious experiment to revolutionize access to legal services, particularly among the poor” via “a new class of legal professionals called ‘limited license legal technicians.’ They are the nurse practitioners of the legal world. Rather than earning a pricey law degree, candidates take about a year of classes at a community college, then a licensing exam. Once they do, they can help clients prepare court documents and perform legal research, just as lawyers do. ‘It will save time and heartache,’ says Paula Littlewood, executive director of the Washington State Bar Association. ‘It’s groundbreaking.’ California, Oregon, Colorado and New Mexico say they may follow Washington’s lead. The program, if it spreads, could transform how middle- and lower-class Americans use the law.”

And there’s good news for folks searching for a middle-class career, the barriers to which don’t leave them drowning in debt: getting trained and certified through “the program costs about $10,000 — far less than the average public-school law degree, which is $50,000.”

Reformers should keep tabs on this example of occupational licensing reform, which could prove a win-win for both those seeking affordable legal services and those seeking a stable, rewarding middle-class career.

The reform-conservative agenda covers a lot of policy areas and has a lot to offer. But I suspect it lacks two elements that some grassroots conservatives still hungrily desire.

The Room to Grow book from the YG Network last year begins simply, “policy is problem solving.” (A sequel is coming, one chapter at a time, starting this summer.)

To a lot of conservatives, these are the biggest problems facing the country:


The reformicon agenda offers problem-solving . . . at a moment when a big chunk of the conservative base wants vengeance for the progressive stink-bombs laid upon this country by a runaway administration: Obamacare and its sales pitch full of lies; a partisan IRS; de facto amnesty by executive order; an enormously wasteful un-stimulative stimulus full of Solyndra-style pork and payoffs; a Dodd-Frank “reform” that turned “too big to fail” into “even bigger and more risky”; shipping guns to Mexican drug cartels in “Fast and Furious”; destructive race-baiting; a retreat from war against radical Islam; a reset button to an ambitious, duplicitous Putin; lying about the cause of the Benghazi attack; skipping Paris rallies for free expression to watch football; and giving away the store to Iranian mullahs.

The reformicon agenda is important, meat-and-potatoes governing issues, but that’s not what gets conservatives’ blood pumping at the moment – and there’s a sense that somebody really focused on the former is giving a pass to the latter. I think that sense is erroneous, but it’s out there.

The other element in there is those who suspect that “reform conservatism” seeks to reform conservatism itself, something that every reformicon insists isn’t true. But while conservatism doesn’t need updating, maybe the particular policy goals do.

There are, in some circles, this insistence that “if we Republicans want to win again, we just need to do what Ronald Reagan did,” as if 30 years hadn’t passed since Reagan’s last electoral victory. (If you plug in Reagan’s winning percentages among various demographics into the 2012 electorate, Reagan loses.) It’s not 1979 anymore**; we don’t have a 1979-style economy, tax rate, education system, health-care system, workforce, and so on; why would it be controversial to take the concepts of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty and apply them to the concerns of today’s middle-class Americans?

** Points in favor of contending that it really is 1979 again: Europe is worried about Russian aggression, the Iranian mullahs are nuts, Afghanistan is full of bloodshed, and there’s a new Star Wars movie coming.


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