Last week, Marco Rubio delivered a speech outlining his economic agenda, and it was widely hailed as the cutting-edge statement of “reform conservatism,” an intra-Republican movement that is also the subject of a nearly 7,000-word feature in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Neither the speech, nor the profile, nor the thousands of other words written about this movement provides a clear explanation about what the Republican agenda would actually look like should the "reformicon" takeover succeed. Their plans are filled with unreconciled contradictions, gaping policy holes, airy generalities, and, in the few places where they are specific, they are exceedingly small-bore in their focus.
Yet to attempt to define the agenda for what it says about itself is to miss the far more significant message lying in what it does not say: that Barack Obama’s agenda poses a dire threat to the fabric of American life, that a reversal must be sweeping in its scope and undertaken immediately. The movement’s true contribution lies in its challenge to Republican apocalypticism.
Glenn Beck’s moment of maximum influence already passed several years ago. But Beck was merely the most comic incarnation of a pervasive Republican alarm. The unhinged versions of this sensibility held that Obama had launched a sinister ideological assault on the Constitution and American freedom, perhaps in the name of Islamism, or socialism, or, somehow, both. The hinged version tended to fasten onto touchstones like Greece, hyperinflation, and looming fiscal catastrophe. The whole Republican worldview has been a series of furious scrawlings on mental chalkboards.
Rubio closely followed the party Zeitgeist. He has compared Obama to a “left-wing strongman,” depicted the course of government during the entire 20th century as a horrible mistake, and uttered such lines as “This is life in Obama, Reid, and Pelosi’s America, where not only is free enterprise attacked, but so too is anyone who dares to defend it.”
His economic speech notably makes a far more gentle critique. He deplores economic stagnation in terms no more stringent than those used by Democrats themselves. (“Millions go to sleep each night overcome with the sense that they are one bad break from financial ruin.”) Rubio’s dismissal of Obama — “the path of the old and tired ideas of big government — this path will never lead us to that better future” — is several steps up from “left-wing strongman.” Or consider Rubio’s take on health care: “Obamacare is a disaster, but the answer is not to simply return to the way things were before it.” The hyperbolic characterization is there, but it has a rote quality — Rubio confines it to the predicate of the sentence before proceeding to the main point, which is that repeal alone will not do. (Like other reformicons, Rubio insists that both Obamacare and the pre-Obamacare status quo are terrible while eliding the vital question of which of the two is worse.) If Obamacare were truly the monstrosity Republicans have depicted it as, repealing the law would be the main point, and the nature of its replacement a matter of secondary importance.
Tanenhaus’s profile displays the same draining away of end-times fervor. And the most telling thing about the story is the near-total absence of Paul Ryan. Not long ago, it would have been unimaginable to read a long story about Republican policy that did not, at least, devote heavy attention to the author of the party’s sweeping vision statement. Ryan appears in this story just once, a glancing reference to his name as one of the “Young Guns” (along with Kevin McCarthy and now-deposed Majority Leader Eric Cantor).
Apocalypticism is the essence of Ryan’s analysis of Obama. In unguarded moments, before his rapid ascent to party thought leader, he announced, “we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel” — the inevitable death spiral of collectivism prophesized by Rand that would culminate in a kind of economic end times — while decrying Obama’s “attack on democratic capitalism, on individualism and freedom in America.” In his more respectable iteration, Ryan would warn, accompanied by a spooky musical backdrop, of skyrocketing debt so staggering it will cause the economy literally to cease existence:
Ryan’s absence is all the more notable since the central protagonist in Tanenhaus’s account is Yuval Levin, a Republican house intellectual who gained his current prominence by advising Ryan. Levin, too, larded his prodigious public output with warnings of impending “fiscal catastrophe,” and on and on. Levin held up Ryan as the party’s visionary, toasting him with extravagant bouquets (“The success he achieved has been nothing short of extraordinary”). When, in the wake of the defeat of the Romney-Ryan ticket, some Republicans called for overhauling the party’s economic platform, Levin, detecting a note of displeasure with the Ryan-authored status quo, assured them that “just the type of thinking they all hope to see” was already in evidence, “thanks very largely to Paul Ryan and the House Republican budgets.” Now the party continues to head inexorably toward its glorious reform future, and Comrade Ryan is oddly missing from the dais.
Republican hysteria still exists, but it increasingly finds its expression not in policy but in a melange of scandal allegations. The threat to the Constitution once epitomized by such things as Obamacare, socialism, and Greece has instead taken the form of Benghazi, the IRS, and Bergdahl.
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. Indeed, the success of Obama’s domestic agenda may create more space for a conservative counteroffensive, in the way that Reaganism opened political room for Bill Clinton. Whether or not the reformicons ever compose a workable domestic agenda, they have come to recognize that they cannot run a presidential campaign promising to rescue America from fire and rubble visible only to themselves.