Liberals are taking the publication of a new collection of essays by conservatives as an occasion to diagnose what ails the Right. The favor should be returned. Liberalism’s reaction to the rise of “reform conservatism” shows us one of its great flaws: an unwarranted confidence in its own basic intellectual health.
“Reform conservatism” is the label that has been attached to a group of writers who believe that the conservative agenda needs to be updated and broadened: that conservative reforms to the nation’s tax code, health-care system, higher-education policies, and safety net, among other institutions, would make it easier for the American middle class to grow and thrive, and that offering such reforms would make it easier for conservatism to grow and thrive. In May, the YG Network, a conservative group, published Room to Grow, a book presenting such an agenda. (I contributed an essay to it, and my wife, who works for that group, ran the project.)
Conservatives who have commented on the book have almost unanimously offered it handsome praise, and this consensus has leapt over some of the divisions that typically fracture the Right. When the American Enterprise Institute hosted a set of panels to discuss the book, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) was one of the speakers, and Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) was another. Both the bête noire and the champion of many tea-party groups could agree to laud Room to Grow.
Liberals, reasonably enough, have been less enthusiastic. Several commentators took the view that reform conservatism is merely a new coat of paint on a rusted right-wing agenda. Scott Winship’s chapter argues, among other things, that transferring many families from Supplemental Security Income to other aid programs would reduce the risk of multigenerational dependence on federal support. Michael Hiltzik, writing for the Los Angeles Times, inveighed against the “contempt for the underprivileged” supposedly behind such ideas.
Other liberals have noticed that most Republicans have yet to take up these reformist ideas and then concluded that they have no political future. Taken together, these common reactions put reform conservatives in a no-win situation: Either the reformists’ proposals have been made before by Republicans, in which case they can be dismissed as retreads of old ideas, or they have not, in which case they can be dismissed as politically irrelevant.
A few liberals have avoided this simple-mindedness. William Galston devoted one of his weekly Wall Street Journal columns to the book. Galston summarized several of the chapters and appeared to agree with much of their content. He thinks, however, that the book is too timid about changing the Republican platform and disagrees with some of the specific political judgments implicit in the book. (He does not think conservatives will get anywhere advocating a replacement for Obamacare and faults the book for saying little about immigration, which he considers a central problem for Republicans.)
E. J. Dionne Jr. has written the most thorough liberal examination of reform conservatism. His essay appeared in the journal Democracy a few days before Room to Grow was published, but it shows that Dionne has been reading the reformers attentively enough to give him an advantage over some commentators who weighed in afterward. Like Galston, he agrees with many of the reformers’ points but wishes we would go further. He wants us to make a sharper break with conservatism as it exists today by accepting a larger role for government, moving left on social issues, and criticizing our fellow conservatives more bluntly.
Dionne’s analysis, it seems to me, goes off track by setting reform conservatism in opposition to tea-party conservatism. The reformers, he writes, did not find the Republican party’s “wall of opposition” to President Obama’s agenda during his first term “particularly appealing,” and tea-party primary victories “sent a chill through the reform cause.” He thinks we are too frightened of our tea-party adversaries to denounce them. He believes that we “pander to anti-Obama feeling” and refuse to acknowledge the moderation of many of his policies, including especially Obamacare, because we “don’t want to offend” people to our right.
I’m confident that I do not speak only for myself in saying that my opposition to almost all of Obama’s policies is quite sincere. And about three-quarters of the proposing legislation that bears the reform-conservative imprint would not exist if not for the tea-party victories of Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio. (Dionne writes off Lee as merely trying to rebrand conservatism, which I don’t think does justice to his record of introducing creative new bills.)
Reformers disagree with many tea partiers, as Dionne notes, on some matters: We tend not to think, for example, that President George W. Bush’s overspending, as regrettable as it was, was one of the major reasons for Republican decline during his second term. But tea-party conservatism and reform conservatism overlap considerably, and it would be inaccurate as well as counterproductive for reformers to deny it — much as it may sadden Dionne. Both groups believe that too many Republicans have been complacent and detached from the concerns of most Americans.
Like other conservatives, most reformers think that the health-care law preserves the private-sector domination of health insurance mostly as a matter of outward form and rests actual decision-making authority over everything important with the federal government. It is true that features of Obamacare resemble policies that some conservatives in the past have supported. But those conservatives were, to my mind, mistaken, and even at that the law went much farther in a centralizing direction than they favored.
Some of the skeptical notes Dionne sounds about reform conservatism are reasonable. He asks whether we are “willing to put the money behind [our] solutions.” The expanded child tax credit many of us advocate, for example, leaves less room in the budget to cut income-tax rates (a trade-off Senator Lee’s proposal faces). Dionne, though, goes a telling step further. He warns that we “often engage in ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ budgeting by calling for sharp reductions in programs progressives see as essential.” To complain that we do not share progressives’ budget priorities amounts to complaining that we are not progressives.
Because he is judging us by how progressive we are, he contrasts us unfavorably to John McCain, who from 2000 through 2004 or so took positions “well to the left of where most of today’s reform conservatives are willing to venture” on immigration, campaign-finance reform, taxes, and climate change. To the extent McCain’s agenda had any coherence — and that extent is easily overstated — it was a step to the left on issues of interest to upper-middle-class voters. Delivering practical benefits for people lower on the income scale was not its focus. Moralizing against various alleged malefactors was; and even that appeal was unable to keep the senator interested in domestic policy for many years. McCain circa 2003 may well have been more appealing to progressives than reform conservatism is, but that is because he was engaged in a wholly different enterprise.
“The promise of reform conservatism is that it will move the right to more moderate and practical ground,” Dionne writes. More practical, yes; but not, in any conventional sense, more moderate. I rather think of reform conservatism as expanding the Right’s agenda by making it more aggressive in such areas as higher education and health care, where for decades we have been passive while liberals have tried, to some extent successfully, to set policy.
Both Dionne and Galston draw a parallel between the efforts of Republican reformers today and those of the Democratic Leadership Council in the late 1980s and early 1990s. There is quite a bit to the analogy, which is why people often make it. What the analogy misses is also important. The Democrats of the 1980s had to respond to a country that was largely happy with Republican governance and to specific conservative policy successes; much of what they had to do took the form of concessions to conservatism. Today the Republicans must reorient themselves in a country that is persistently unhappy and where liberal policy successes are too hard to detect to be the basis for concessions.
Dionne writes that reform conservatives are “far too timid in their approaches to economic injustice and to the structural problems in the economic system.” We diagnose those injustices and problems differently than he does. But isn’t the contemporary progressive agenda pretty timid and unimaginative, too, even on its own terms? The central demand of a progressive president on economic matters is a higher minimum wage, and the left-wing favorite who recently became mayor of New York City wants more funding for preschools. Even if I thought these ideas were good ones, I would not think them likely to improve American life in any major way.
In his treatment of “the reformicons,” Dionne is thoughtful and even at times generous. But he seems to think that what contemporary conservatism needs is to be more like contemporary liberalism. Conservatives should decline the invitation and, because the condition of liberalism is not exactly enviable, should decline it without regret.