The Problem with Reform Conservatism

Column: It needs a presidential champion

Eric Cantor Flickr
May 23, 2014

An intellectually stimulating and potentially historic event was held at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday. House majority leader Eric Cantor, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, and Senators Mike Lee and Tim Scott appeared alongside conservative thinkers and journalists such as Arthur Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Peter Wehner, Yuval Levin, and Kate O’Beirne to discuss "solutions for the middle class." The AEI panel was noteworthy not only for its content but also for the presence of Republican elected officials. It was the debut, however modest, of "reform conservatism" as a political force.

Plenty has been written about the need for the GOP to adopt economic policies that help middle-class families, and Room to Grow, the book put together by event co-sponsor YG Network, is the best primer I have seen on the various proposals that constitute reform conservatism. I do not doubt for a moment that if the Republican Party adopted Room to Grow as its platform tomorrow, then both the GOP and the country would enjoy a better future.

But that is the problem. Close to six years after Barack Obama’s election, the party as an institution is no closer to embracing the ideas of Salam, Douthat, Ponnuru, and Levin than it was when we celebrated the publication of Grand New Party at the Watergate in 2008. For reform conservatism to have any real-world application, it needs to find a presidential champion. And the prospects of that happening are not what you would call overwhelming.

I do not mean to sell the reformers short. The very fact that this discussion is taking place at all, and that the participants in the discussion include members of the House and Senate GOP leadership, is an achievement. Another achievement is a series of recent speeches delivered by Marco Rubio and Cantor and Lee. Those speeches discussed the importance of work and family, and proposed concrete ways to use the power of the federal government to improve work and family life. The speeches set a tone and established an approach that, in an ideal world (which this is not), would inform Republican campaigns and Republican legislative strategy.

That Rubio gave one of those speeches is both significant and revealing. Significant, because Rubio is likely to run for president, and is therefore in a position to adopt the reform conservatives as his policy advisers and to champion their cause in the primaries, in the general election, and, Allah willing, in the formation of the FY2018 budget. But Rubio’s presence is also revealing, because he is the only national Republican identified with reform conservatism that is also widely and legitimately considered a presidential contender. Where is everyone else?

Well, at the moment, everyone else seems distinctly uninterested in reform conservatism. The governors are content to tell their own stories—Walker’s story of government reform, Kasich's story of compassion, Perry’s story of economic growth, Christie’s story of bridge-building, as it were, between the executive and a hostile legislature. Jindal and Brownback might be interested in reform conservatism, but seem not to have adopted its D.C. version. Mike Pence is certainly interested in policy innovations and in entitlement reforms—but after the rollout of his Medicaid privatization this week, he may think twice before announcing any further initiatives.

The legislators are not much different. Rand Paul advocates not reform conservatism but reform libertarianism. The conservatism Ted Cruz seems most interested in reforming is that practiced by the Senate Republican leadership. Jack Kemp and Edward Conard have more influence over Paul Ryan and his budget, which has served as the de facto governing document of the GOP since 2010, than do Mike Lee and Ross Douthat.

As for the question mark, Jeb Bush, who knows what he is thinking or what he is planning. We know only that he is a serious policy-thinker who had a successful run as governor of Florida between 1998 and 2006. And we also know that he is interested in reform—in education reform and, most infamously, in immigration reform.

It is the issue of immigration that presents the greatest challenge to the prospects of reform conservatism. Immigration represents most fully the divide between the Republican leadership, including some of the elected advocates of reform conservatism, and the Republican base. Every time the Republican leadership brings up the prospect of an immigration reform that includes some sort of amnesty, they provoke a loud and vitriolic and self-defeating intra-party debate. Every time, that debate has the same consequences: The Republican leadership backs down and Hispanic voters are left with the impression that the GOP hates them.

The party is trapped in a double bind. The outreach Republicans make to single women and to minorities inevitably repels the groups that give the party 48 percent of the popular vote—Christians and seniors and men. As has been made abundantly clear, 48 percent of the popular vote does not a presidential victory make. But 48 percent is not quite something to sniff at either. That number can always go down.

I don’t think you can have a pro-middle-class conservatism while supporting an amnesty that will incentivize a flood of cheap labor into this country. Nor do I think you can have a pro-middle-class conservatism that politely overlooks the issue of global trade and the economic and strategic and moral costs of our Most-Favored-Nation trading relationship with China. Finally, I do not think you can have a winning pro-middle-class conservatism that runs away from the hot-button social issues of abortion, marriage, guns, welfare, and affirmative action. These issues are polarizing and potentially inflammatory. But Republican voters care deeply about these issues, as Republicans should, and they are, like it or not, the issues that drive GOP voters to the polls.

What reform conservatives might hope for is a replay of the 1980 primary. Ronald Reagan, it is important to remember, was not always a supply-sider. For most of his career he supported the principle of balanced budgets. It was Jack Kemp, not Reagan, who was the great hope of an earlier generation of reform conservatives. "I think he’ll be on the ticket," Irving Kristol said of Kemp in a 1979 interview.

Jack is a quick study. He reads, and he thinks. He knows what he’s talking about on the tax issue. Nobody is coaching him. Besides, you don’t necessarily have to be that smart to be president. What you need is character and guts. Jack has those.

Kemp was not on the ticket in 1980; he had to wait until 1996. But Kemp’s ideas—specifically, his big idea of a massive tax cut—were on the ticket in 1980 in the form of Ronald Reagan. The dynamics of the Republican primary led Reagan to adopt the supply-side model. His victory was a victory for the reform conservatism of its time.

So, too, the dynamics of the 2016 primary may—emphasis on the "may"—lead a nominee with character and guts to adopt whole-heartedly the agenda of reform conservatism. We have yet to see whether reform conservatism is the blueprint for political and policy success, and whether it is the solution to, rather than a (benign!) symptom of, the problematic situation in which the Republican Party finds itself. It will take a champion to discover the answer. Marco, I’m looking at you.