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Conservatives, Grab Your Pitchforks!

Illustration by Miguel Davilla

Could Republicans get around the Democratic populist flank? Heavens, let’s hope so.

Thomas Edsall, the New York Times online columnist and veteran WaPo political reporter, fretted this week that a surging group of young conservative reformers might have learned the GOP’s lessons after 2012 well enough to steal the Democrats’ traditional economic thunder, and that Hillary could be too tied up in Wall Street to stop them. For those of us on the reformist right that may seem rather too rosy a scenario to hope for, but the column did bring out several noteworthy political developments. (Ramesh and Yuval offer the official reformocon corrections at NRO, justly pushing back against Tea Party firebrand Mike Lee being part of a lurch to the center.)

Edsell worries that “The danger for Democrats is that they will lose ownership of the issues of stagnation, opportunity, and fairness.” Most of the elected Republican rhetoric on wage stagnation and income inequality that we’ve heard in recent months, coming as it is from Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, rings pretty hollow. Haranguing Obama for the fact that the post-recession economic recovery has overwhelmingly benefited the 1 percent smacks more of partisan opportunism than a reformed platform when it is unaccompanied by any serious effort to grapple with the deep structural forces that have been driving that economic polarization for several decades now. Occupy rhetoric in Republican mouths often sounds even more jarring than Congressmen who decry the cronyism of Solyndra in the same breath that swears fealty to the farm bill. Jeb may be the only major politician currently alluding to the wave of work deskilling and automation.

Opportunity is much more comfortable territory for conventionally conservative politicians, but as for fairness, Wick Allison wrote here immediately following the 2012 election,

A capital gains tax rate (making money off money) that is lower than the earned income rate (making money off work) is just not fair. Bestowing that rate on hedge-fund managers through a specially designed loophole is just not fair. Allowing the rich to take mortgage deductions for second and third homes, or for homes worth over $1 million, is just not fair. Allowing business owners like me to take myriad deductions that our employees cannot take is just not fair. But, most of all, allowing the wealthy to pay very low tax rates while interest on the war debt accumulates, deficits continue, and middle-class incomes deteriorate is just not fair.

The times are indeed changing, as the reform conservative™ Lee-Rubio tax plan offers expanded child tax credits that are—very significantly—refundable against the payroll tax, and which are paid for, in part, by capping the home mortgage interest deduction for the first more-than-modest $300,000 of a home. While that may sting relatively middle-class homeowners in expensive markets like Washington, D.C., it seems a reasonable trade-off to keep from continuing to subsidize holiday homes in the Hamptons with an intended middle-class tax break.

The most humorous part of Edsell’s column comes as analysis of what reform economics could do to the GOP coalition:

If Republicans compromise on taxes, conservative Christians are going to worry that compromise on abortion will be next. Anti-immigrant forces are already convinced that Republican leaders will cave in to pressure to enact liberal immigration reform. Many of the party’s most loyal constituencies fear that if this leftward turn continues, the entire conservative edifice could implode.

Conservative Christians need not worry that abortion abandonment is next; it’s already past. Likewise, comprehensive immigration reform has long ranked just behind expanded free trade agreements on the Congressional GOP list of priorities. If there’s one constituency the GOP has not dared disappoint, it is the donorists.

Conservative reform ideas are certainly still under heavy attack from the conventionally mindedright, but what Edsell gets very right is that there is currently an dynamic open policy debate on the right, where the Democratic party, as I have heard echoed by frustrated friends on the left, mostly seems economically exhausted.

It has been over 25 years since the Clinton family was engaged in any similar sort of policy entrepreneurship, and their past 15 years have been spent overwhelmingly in the donorist circles that run the gamut from simply self-interested to the disturbing and predatory. One great unknown is whether Hillary has the political wherewithal to upset the coterie of plutocrats who have been funding the Clinton Foundation and placing advance down payments for influence in the form of her lucrative speaking fees.

The question is: is there anyone other than a Bush to pass out the conservative pitchforks and torches?

about the author

Jonathan Coppage is a TAC associate editor. He received a BA in Political Science from North Carolina State University, and previously attended the University of Chicago, where he studied in the Fundamentals: Issues and Texts great books concentration. Jonathan also worked at The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. Jon can be followed on Twitter @JonCoppage, or reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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