What’s My Problem With Conservative Reformers?

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Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

However loopy, bigoted, incompetent, or detached from the realities of economic life the Republican Party may be, it is always just one recession away from regaining political power. It is therefore of the highest importance that sane, non-sociopathic people regain some influence within the party for when that day arrives. A cadre of Republican-affiliated intellectuals has taken up this cause (E.J. Dionne assesses them in a Democracy review essay).

The challenge facing the conservative reformers is the yawning gap between their ambition — crafting a Republican platform designed to address real-world problems rather than redeem ideological fantasies — and the stark political reality of the Republican coalition. They are attempting to soothe a suspicious beast. The difficulty of the task merely serves to underscore its urgency.

The deeper tension in the project lies between the political demands of the reform project and the demands of intellectual honesty. That’s the main tension I tried to highlight in a profile I wrote last year of Josh Barro, who simply grew tired of the contortions necessary for the far right. The contrasting point of view to Barro was supplied by Reihan Salam, who told me, “The truly public-spirited person is part of a team, and makes their team smarter and better to the extent they can.” Being part of a team means that, in the service of a noble and public-spirited political goal, you are engaged in some form of spin. Dionne’s essay describes how Republican reformers demonstrate their partisan bona fides by engaging in elaborately overstated denunciations of President Obama while refusing either to grapple with the party’s reflexive opposition or acknowledge the ways that some of Obama’s proposals were, are, or could be the basis for compromise.

George Herbert Walker Bush and I offer our full support. Photo: Lukle Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

I like the conservative reformers. But I also like prodding at the tension between their ideas and the existing ideas of the party, and the related tension between their beliefs and their need to remain politically viable. This tends to annoy them.

Recently Ramesh Ponnuru, a reformist conservative whom I consider to be an honest and highly intelligent person, wrote a column urging the party to advocate an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit. I replied that Ponnuru ought to grapple with, or at least mention, the fact that the national GOP is currently using all its force to reduce the Earned Income Tax Credit, and is also using its power at the state level to the same basic effect.

Ponnuru responds, “I don’t think Republicans are in exactly the right place on these issues, which is why I write articles advocating that they change their approach in some respects.” Well, obviously. It’s just a bit odd to make no reference whatsoever to the party’s existing agenda. If somebody were to urge Democrats to win back Appalachia by embracing a pro-coal agenda, it would be weird not to make any reference to the fact that the party is currently waging a massive campaign to phase out coal altogether that has, in fact, helped create the very problem they would be proposing to alleviate. Indeed, you would probably want to go beyond merely mentioning the fact that the incumbent Democratic agenda involves crushing rather than encouraging coal. You’d want to explain what forces have led the party to this policy and explain how they could be overcome. These are the sorts of steps conservative reformers are loath to take.

These folks may be less enthusiastic. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum for New York Magazine

Ross Douthat objects to my column as well. According to Douthat, the point of my piece is that conservative reformers are “simply wasting their time, because whatever a few right-of-center wonks might like to think, American conservatism in its very essence is intent on soaking, punishing and immiserating the poor.

Douthat does not quote a single word of my reply, which is often a tip-off that a subject’s views are being mischaracterized. In fact, I do not believe that the goal of making Republican policy less hostile to the poor is certain to fail. Indeed, I don’t even think it’s likely to fail. I believe the most likely scenario for the party is a return to George W. Bush-ism, combining more lenient treatment of the poor with favorable tax and regulatory policies for the rich, and forgetting about deficits, which Republicans only care about when Democrats hold the White House. I actually argued this not long ago, and I know Douthat read it because he publicly disagreed.

I do believe the reformers are massively understating the obstacles before them. There are reasons Republicans have fought so hard to claw back subsidies for the least fortunate. Active philosophical opposition to redistribution is one. A general detachment from the poor is another. The unforgiving zero-sum math of budgets, which means a dollar spent on helping a Walmart mom is a dollar in higher taxes or lower defense or politically painful cuts in retirement benefits, is a third. I do think the Republican reformers can nudge their party to a better, or at least less terrible, place. But I don’t think they’re being very straight about it.