Writing a week after the 2008 presidential election, New York Times columnist David Brooks tried to handicap the “fight over the future of conservatism.” It would be a battle between “traditionalists,” who want to “Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration,” and “reformers,” who agree with an old line by George H.W. Bush: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.” If the traditionalists believed in the Right’s “true creed” and the Republican Party’s “core ideas,” the reformers’ platform was more amorphous.
Reformers care about global warming, worry about the middle class, have made peace with the welfare state, and want to win over voters who are moderate, college-educated, or Hispanic, but not necessarily in that order. They are more readily identifiable by who they are than by the specific policies they advocate. According to Brooks, the “Reformist view is articulated most fully by books, such as Comeback by David Frum and Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, as well as the various writings of people like Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Rod Dreher, Peggy Noonan and, at the moderate edge, me.” The traditionalists, by contrast, are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber.
Such a crude dichotomy might sound like a more promising basis for a throwaway column than a serious discussion of the future of a political movement, but conservatives are still talking about it a year later. Despite Brooks’s prediction that they would be marginalized and purged, reformist conservatives have thrived in the mainstream media and found the pages of National Review, the Weekly Standard, and other conservative movment publications open to them. Douthat joined Brooks as a regular columnist for the New York Times. The reformists even have their own new magazine, National Affairs.
Reformists begin with a few genuine political insights. Crime, marginal income-tax rates, and the number of people on welfare are all lower than when Ronald Reagan was elected. This has understandably made these bread-and-butter conservative issues less salient to voters than the rising cost of healthcare, a policy area where the debate has changed since the 1990s. There are now self-employed workers, a natural GOP constituency if there ever was one, who would rather absorb moderate tax increases than continue to pay for their own health insurance. There are also businesses that would prefer to dump their employees onto a government-run “public option” rather than provide them with private health insurance.
Much of reformist conservatism is really an aesthetic judgment about the Republican Party and conservative movement, one that is difficult for fair-minded observers to reject entirely. Some popular radio talk-show hosts are loud and boorish. Some personalities who resonate with self-described conservatives are deeply unpopular among most other Americans. Elements of the movement have been hostile to new ideas, spending their time, as Brooks puts it, “living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with.” Conservatives have perhaps not been hostile enough to new Obama-era conspiracy theories, as Republican “birthers” complement Democratic 9/11 “truthers.”
But the reformist critique would be more convincing if more of its prominent exponents had been complaining about the state of conservatism before Republicans started losing elections. Instead, many of them were staunch supporters of George W. Bush and John McCain, imagining them to be promising vessels for the reformists’ “new ideas.” To be sure, reformers were critical of McCain’s listless presidential campaign and did not believe that Bush’s compassionate conservatism went far enough. This, however, is criticism along the same lines as those supply-siders who thought the 2001 Bush tax cuts did not focus enough on reducing marginal rates.
In fact, the reformists tended to support the very Bush-era policies that ushered in the Obama administration and Democratic congressional majorities. Virtually all of them favored invading Iraq. Although many of them now concede that the war did not go as well, pre-surge, as they had hoped, most of them continue to believe the decision to attack Iraq was justified. The Iraq War and the foreign-policy ideas that gave rise to it are conspicuous by their absence from reformists’ list of areas where Republicans or conservatives need to change. Only Dreher, who is more traditionalist in the Russell Kirk sense than Brooks’s “traditionalists” or “reformers,” and Douthat, in an interview with Catholic World Report, have counted Iraq among Bush’s biggest mistakes in office.
If Iraq was the biggest cause of the Republican “thumpin’” in 2006, the financial meltdown was the heaviest millstone around the GOP’s neck in 2008. Here the reformist record is not much better. While most conservative criticisms of the Community Reinvestment Act’s role in the housing bubble have, with some justice, focused on Bill Clinton, Bush also preferred diversity to creditworthiness. As Steve Sailer has reported, “the biggest flood of CRA assurances came during the presidency of George W. Bush, who repeatedly called in 2002-2004 for 5.5 million more minority homeowners by 2010.” Yet reformist voices were more likely to be raised in favor of GOP minority outreach than against Bush’s housing policies.
Even less was said about the fundamental irresponsibility of trying to promote economic growth through artificially low interest rates, a loose monetary policy, large permanent increases in federal spending accompanied by small temporary tax cuts, and selective deregulation backed by taxpayer guarantees. The $700 billion Wall Street bailout was less likely to be opposed by self-styled reformists than by the type of conservative they blame for wrecking the Republican Party. Abolishing the Federal Reserve is one new idea that doesn’t get a respectful hearing on the Frum-edited New Majority website.
Too much of what passes for innovation among “new ideas” conservatives is essentially a more finely tuned version of Bushism. Sometimes this is made explicit: Commentary invited Peter Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Michael Gerson of the Washington Post to contribute a major piece on “The Path to Republican Recovery.” Wehner, as deputy assistant to the president, was a full-time Bush apologist. Gerson, as a presidential speechwriter, penned the lyrics to big-government conservatism’s siren song. There is almost nothing in their articlewhich calls for more immigration, a moralistic foreign policy, more foreign aid, and a more robust federal education policythat was not a stated position of the same administration that presided over the GOP’s spectacular decline.
Stephen M. Teles, writing in National Affairs, goes so far as to argue that rehabilitating compassionate conservatism should take precedence over rebuilding the Republican Party. An associate professor at Johns Hopkins and a New America Foundation fellow, Teles suggests restoring “linkages with reformist Democrats” rather than another “attempt to use the Republican party as a battering ram to reform the welfare state.” “The future of compassionate conservatism may, like progressivism before it, depend on attracting ‘respectable people’ across the political spectrum through a slow process of experimenting, organization-building, and seeking out allies,” Teles concludes. “History suggests that this will be a more durable strategy for compassionate conservatism than capturing the Republican party, which has at best been its fair-weather friend.”
The reformists’ political analysis goes off the rails in three significant ways. First, they imagine the Republican Party to be much more antigovernment than it has been in practice. Sometimes they acknowledge this when they want to enlist Reagan to their cause or defend George W. Bush’s conservative credentials. But they seldom admit that the GOP’s actual record of governance comes closer to their vision of conservatisma more family-friendly welfare state, an interventionist foreign policy, and largely ineffectual attempts to use small policy initiatives to reach out to Democratic constituenciesthan it does to the government-slashing, immigration-restricting rhetoric of Glenn Beck.
Second, the reformists exaggerate the importance of 2006-08’s political trends. Democrats won those elections because Bush was disliked, not because they were loved. Having won power in this way, many Democrats are already finding themselves vulnerable to totally unreformed Republicans. The reformists have largely ignored the political opportunities created by liberal governance, even though liberal misgovernment is the primary contributor to conservative political success since World War II. The GOP may experience a limited revival simply by virtue of being the second choice in a two-party system.
Finally, the reformists are hunting where the ducks aren’t. Rush Limbaugh’s constituency may be small relative to the national population. But the constituency for a revivified Rockefeller Republicanism is practically nonexistent. Paradoxically, all of the “Real America” chest-beating, liberal-bating, red-state identity politics behavior that so embarrasses and offends the reformers has grown worse as Bush-McCain Republicans have adopted reformist policies. The reason is simplethere is no other way to turn out the base. Similarly, the hardening of center-Right attitudes against Obama’s expansions of government create political opportunities for a more full-throated conservatism than the GOP has practiced in recent years. But most reformists would flinch from seizing those opportunities.
The country desperately needs a conservatism that is more intellectually sober and a Republican Party that engages with the country’s most pressing problems rather than reliving its Reagan-era glories. But the reformists, whose new ideas are not conservative and whose old ideas are the ones that destroyed the Bush GOP, are the very last pundits Republicans should heed.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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