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Cantor and Reform Conservatism

One of the least persuasive interpretations of Cantor’s loss is that it represents a major setback for “reform conservatism.” Ezra Klein endorses this view:

Of late, there’s been a lot of talk about “reform conservatism,” a gentler, more inclusive, more wonkish brand of conservatism. Cantor, a founding member of the “Young Guns,” was one of reform conservatism’s patron saints. His loss suggests reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, even among Republican primary voters. The Republican base, at least in Cantor’s district, isn’t in the mood for technocratic solutionism.

I’ll leave it to the reform conservatives to judge whether Cantor is one of their “patron saints,” but my impression is that his association with reform conservatism wasn’t very meaningful. It was just one of the many reinventions that he underwent over the last decade. Jason Zengerle counts more than six of these, but however many there have been the point is that Cantor seems to adopt and abandon these causes very easily and never fully embraces any of them. Zengerle emphasizes that this more than anything else was what undid Cantor in the end:

The serial reinventions left Cantor with few allies and myriad enemies. He was the worst thing a politician could be: someone who inspired great passion, but only negative ones.

There are several Republican politicians interested in the substance of reform conservatives’ proposals, but if one were making a list of these politicians I’m not sure that Cantor would have even been on it. I doubt there are many reform conservatives that will be disheartened by Cantor’s loss, and there may even be some that welcome it. As Zengerle’s article suggests, Cantor is the unreliable kind of ally that one wouldn’t want to have. It may be the case that reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency, but it has scarcely come into existence as an identifiable tendency on the right and it hasn’t ever really been put to the electoral test.

In a post responding to the news of Cantor’s defeat, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry states his view of what reform conservatism should be:

The reform conservative agenda is an agenda that is populist, that is to say, it is clearly, unabashedly, and thoroughly, on the side of the broad swaths of Americans who have been victimized by long-standing trends in American life, both social and economic.

Based on what we know about Cantor’s voting record and the main themes of the primary campaign, would anyone say that Cantor’s defeat is bad news for this kind of conservatism? I don’t think so. If Cantor was any kind of reform conservative, he clearly wasn’t a populist one, and his defeat doesn’t tell us much about the prospects of a reform conservatism that tries to be what Gobry describes.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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