In tackling the growing vogue of reform conservatism, E.J. Dionne Jr. rightly divines its core challenge: navigating the narrow strait between the need to put forward governing ideas for the health of conservatism and its preferred political party, and the “Hell, no!” nihilism of the Tea Party’s political base. [“The Reformicons,” Issue #33]
Dionne concludes that the “reformicons” (his coinage) must do something beyond gussying up the packaging of staid policy prescriptions (the usual menu of tax cuts, deregulation, and reduced federal spending) and beat back the reflexive anti-government zealotry of the Tea Party in order to effect real policy change. He spends less time on the fact that the reformicons are operating in this excruciatingly narrow space for reasons that go to the very heart of America’s oldest and deepest divide: race, and the lingering social and political backlash against the federal government’s various attempts to craft interracial decency in a country born in slavery. It is a divide the reformicons largely decline to confront.
Dionne traces the historical ebb and flow of reform conservatism, from the sweeping, think-tank intellectualism that arose in the 1970s and served as a response to the Great Society (and produced now-hated ideas like the individual mandate, along with well-worn ones like block grants and revenue sharing with the states) to the reformist fits and starts that characterize the long Senate career of John McCain and the nascent one of Florida’s Marco Rubio.
McCain and Rubio—men of vastly different political eras—embody both the potential and the limits of conservative reform. In McCain’s case, he spent the late 1990s and early 2000s trumpeting the cause of campaign finance reform, which was opposed by almost everyone else in his party and was ultimately crushed under the wheels of Citizens United, after which McCain threw up his hands and abandoned the issue. His principled opposition to the Bush tax cuts is an antique unlikely to be dusted off as a set piece for the conservative mantel. Meanwhile, he and Rubio have had to walk back their own immigration-reform proposals after being beaten down by the conservative entertainment complex. And Rubio’s talk of income inequality largely consists of a thin gruel of still more tax cuts and block grants, along with opposition to popular solutions like raising the minimum wage. McCain can claim one reform victory (besides the short-lived McCain-Feingold law): the end of earmarks, a Tea Party-fueled win for which the defanged leaders of both houses of Congress surely thank him exactly never.
There are, broadly speaking, two groups of reformicons: the political and the intellectual. Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul represent the new vanguard of political-reform conservatives, whose challenge is to bring into alignment inherently contradictory things: a language of compassion for struggling Americans and a zeal to slash the social safety net; laudatory language around working people and policies that mainly benefit their bosses; and the mystique of Ronald Reagan, with his expertise at bonding with white working-class voters, but without his apostasies on taxes, budget deficits, and immigration.
The elected reformists are also constrained by the base’s toxic antipathy toward Barack Obama, whose 2008 and 2012 presidential wins represented a demographic system shock. Political conservatives responded by shutting off the spigot of governing ideas in favor of a full-scale fight to prevent Obama’s re-election and, failing that, to hobble the remainder of his presidency. The “total obstruction” strategy has been brutally effective at drawing down Obama’s political capital. But it has had another less noted and arguably more lasting effect: It has sidelined Republican reformists, who can no more enact a novel policy agenda than can the President, due to a political requirement, driven by right-wing media, that any such policies be slammed atop the hated President’s head, not negotiated with him through the normal political process. The reformicons’ need to join in the right’s relentless anti-Obamaism to survive politically, as Dionne notes, leaves little room for debating policy.
The sledding is just as tough for those in the intellectual wing of the conservative reform movement: people like Reihan Salam, Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, and David Frum. They represent a bookish elite that can lack credibility with the increasingly populist Republican base, either because they are associated with the failures of George W. Bush’s big-government neoconservatism (Frum) or because they themselves have concluded that the only remaining course for conservatives in the culture wars is a negotiated surrender (Douthat).
Dionne asks whether the intellectual reformists are really prepared to engage in a new battle of ideas. But as he acknowledges, Obama has in many ways stymied conservative reformists by co-opting some of their ideas early in his presidency (the individual mandate and the payroll tax cut come to mind), thereby rendering them unacceptable to the conservative body politic. He’s also done so in the latter part of his presidency by—belatedly, in the view of many liberals—pulling back from political engagement with the right in favor of maximizing the use of executive authority.
Obama’s “pen and phone” strategy—whether in streamlining regulations, delaying the individual mandate for small businesses, or deferring the deportation of the children of undocumented immigrants—has infuriated Republican politicians and incited their already volatile base. This has drowned any talk of policy initiatives that conservative reformers might have pursued in a sea of catcalls for the President’s impeachment.
That leaves any potential reform movement in something of a muddle. By putting forward ideas that might draw President Obama back onto the field, and locating solutions in governmental action, reformists run the risk of being reduced to a stump-speech epithet uttered by Tea Party populists, who are constantly on the hunt for the insufficiently pure. To coin a phrase, they risk being “Eric Cantored.”
Thus we get from the reformist YG Network (a group that includes Ponnuru, Salam, Peter Wehner, and other reform conservatives) somewhat self-critical assessments like, “Americans do not have a sense that conservatives offer them a better shot at success and security than liberals,” and that “for that to change, conservatives in American politics need to understand constituents’ concerns, speak to those aspirations and worries, and help people see how applying conservative principles and deploying conservative policies could help make their lives better.” But the proposed policy fixes are notable for how circumscribed they are. They can neither increase federal spending nor expand the deficit; they can neither add to federal government responsibility nor create state-level mandates.
So the ideas that emerge differ little from what’s been on offer for more than a generation: steep cuts to the social safety net, block grants to states, and, as Yuval Levin writes in the YG Network’s collection of essays, Room to Grow, “creating, protecting, and sustaining” the “space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy”—which translates into generalized moral support for community and familial institutions that, in the best-case conservative scenario, will over time convince middle- and working-class Americans that they don’t desire solutions that come from the federal government. The trouble with all this is that many Americans—and particularly people of color—don’t trust these actors to offer them greater social or economic security than a strong federal government does. The tussles erupting in several states over voting rights and the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act offer very tangible reasons for their skepticism.
Dionne correctly locates the origins of reform conservatism in the Great Society era. But the cleavages opened by LBJ’s social and economic reforms ran much deeper than the reform movement seems prepared to acknowledge.
Bringing the “Reagan Democrats” into the conservative political coalition was not accomplished without social casualties. Reagan appealed to white working-class Americans in part by serving up a set of scapegoats for their economic ills (black “welfare queens” and the lazy, itinerant poor) and for their sense of social alienation (gays, feminists, and the Hollywood left).
That sociopolitical alienation—fueled by serial economic crises, the upheavals of the civil rights era, and, in its aftermath, the perceived zero-sum battles over busing, housing, and jobs—is rarely addressed by the reformicons. But it is so encoded in the DNA of the modern Republican Party that reformists can scarcely hope to get a hearing on any policy prescription that’s seen as expanding government’s ability to give “handouts” to minorities and “illegal immigrants.” Reformists will find it hard to compete, through their publications and think tanks, with the much louder voices of the conservative media complex, which feeds on that alienation day in and day out.
Reform conservatives speak broadly of creating a language of middle-class inclusion without acknowledging these social factors. They do so in part because of conservatism’s goal of eliminating the calculation of racial and ethnic difference in favor of a blanket American-ness (which of course is based on a traditional WASP model). Much like Chief Justice John Roberts, conservative policy-makers’ response to the racial component of economic disparity tends to be to ignore it, as if race and racial disparity will simply fade away as long as they don’t engage the topic. But the fact remains that the political party preferred by conservatives doesn’t have a “working class” problem—it has a non-white working class problem.
The Republican Party has maintained a lock on working-class white voters, whose ideological moorings have become more rooted in economic populism and limited government, even when their lived experience is of an active engagement with government, from their Medicare or veterans benefits to the myriad tax credits they claim each April 15. And as the Republican Party becomes more regional, it becomes clear that Southern anti-statism and “states’ rights” rejectionism haven’t changed much since the 1960s, though they’ve lost much of their racial intensity. Thus, nine Southern states—which according to the Kaiser Family Foundation have the highest rates of uninsured and whose populations are the most likely to report being in poor health—form the core of Medicaid expansion rejectionists who continue to oppose the Affordable Care Act years after its passage. And maps showing the red wall of Southern resistance to the Medicaid expansion closely track, with a couple of exceptions, the map of states once covered under Section 5 preclearance by the Voting Rights Act.
The South is home to a solidly Republican, conservative white base and a large, solidly Democratic African-American one that remain at odds on nearly every policy prescription. Thus, the region with the greatest and most entrenched poverty is the most deeply opposed to anti-poverty programs. It’s difficult to imagine a conservative reform movement that could successfully pitch governmental fixes to the Southern poverty pandemic that wouldn’t be seen as handouts to the “47 percent” rather than broadly shared benefits.
Even some of the more interesting conservative reform ideas—expanding the earned-income tax credit, for example—risk getting lost in that mire. That’s not to say there are no areas where reform conservatives might ultimately be successful. Dionne mentions sentencing reform, which has long been embraced by libertarians, and there are other issues like electronic privacy, drug laws, interventionism, and war. These reform areas are gaining traction as the libertarian wing takes hold inside the Republican Party and tries to expand the party’s voting base into younger demographics—and they also happen to be issues that don’t touch the political third rails of “wealth transfers” or government spending. It is on that discrete set of policy ideas that the populists of the right and left currently align, and political conservatives like Rand Paul and Utah Senator Mike Lee can make common cause even with the Obama Administration and survive with their jobs intact.
But in areas like income inequality, immigration, and health care, conservative reformers seem locked in a death struggle with the base of their party. And while that could change with the end of the Obama era, it’s hard to imagine conservative reformers progressing much beyond the pages of online magazines unless and until the base of their political party allows it.