A Tale of Two Manifestos

Is the future of conservatism a battle between two policy documents?

By Nathan Pippenger

Danny Vinik notices that Paul Ryan’s likely new gig at the House Ways and Means Committee means that soon, he’ll have to make his loyalties clear in the “Reformicon” debate:

Term limits mean Ryan can’t keep his current chairmanship. And that’s where things get interesting. As a replacement, he’s expected to seek, and to get, chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. That will give him direct jurisdiction over tax reform and, as the Washington Post’s Robert Costa confirmed in a tweet, Ryan hopes to keep pushing the same supply-side agenda. But that’s likely to put him in conflict with the nascent reform conservative movement.


Conservatives may end up reconciling the two sides—by calling for both [tax bracket] simplification and a bigger child tax credit, for example, though they may have an issue with deficit neutrality. Note that Levin, having advised and praised Ryan, is also a leader of the reformicon movement. But there are also reasons to think Ryan will have to adapt if he hopes to retain strong support of reform conservatives.

The reform conservatives have sketched out some signature policy ideas in a document called “Room to Grow,” which pushes back against some of the right’s most cherished nostrums (“Cutting marginal tax rates is not […] an effective tool for delivering tax relief to the middle class”). In its measured tone, and its acknowledgment that things have changed since the Reagan era, it’s nearly the exact opposite of another recent GOP policy agenda: the platform recently adopted by the Republican Party of Texas. Hendrik Hertzberg read through the 40-page document, which calls for (among other things) nullification of federal laws; the elimination of almost every job in the federal government; the repeal of the Voting Rights Act; the promotion of ex-gay therapy; spanking children; and withdrawal from the UN, the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF.

The platform, to put it lightly, does not exhibit the “draining away of end-times fervor” that Jonathan Chait detected in a recent New York Times Magazine piece about the reformicons. “Apocalypticism is the essence of Ryan’s analysis of Obama,” Chait notes – and the people shaping up as Ryan’s intra-party opponents don’t seem to share his panic. “The reformicons’ retreat from Ryan-style apocalypticism is not only a shrewd tonal shift, but also a welcome — albeit unacknowledged — recognition that the party’s doomsaying has not come to pass, and that the American way of life will indeed survive Obama’s reforms,” Chait argues.

The reformicons may recognize this, but the Texas GOP seems less prepared to concede the point. And the assignment of blame for the insanity brewing in the Lone Star state depends, in large part, on the direction of influence within the GOP. Did national leaders, with their reckless rhetoric about Obama destroying America, create this toxic party? Or are they merely responding to conditions on the ground?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a bit of both. The tonal shift among GOP leaders suggests their confidence that, having stoked outrage for electoral gain, they now have the power to quell it. They may be overestimating their power, and the extent to which a new policy agenda can restore calm and rationality to a party they have so opportunistically manipulated.The question of Reformicons vs. Supply-Siders, then, is not just a battle over public policy. It’s a struggle for the future of the GOP’s psyche.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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