GOP’s fatal “reform” dilemma: Building a movement from discredited ideologies

Marco Rubio and right-wing "reformicons" want to "reform" conservatism, but also stay true to stagnant dogma

Topics: Conservatism, Conservatives, reform conservatives, New York Times, trickle-down economics, Neoconservatism, Tax cuts, Austerity, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Heritage Foundation, Iraq war, Monetary policy, Federal Reserve, Editor's Picks,

GOP's fatal "reform" dilemma: Building a movement from discredited ideologiesPaul Ryan, Marco Rubio (Credit: Jeffrey Malet, maletphoto.com)

I admit to being sympathetic to the “reform conservatives.” Years spent analyzing and critiquing the existing conservative political and media establishments leaves one with a dim view of a movement that treats people like Mark Levin and Jonah Goldberg as intellectuals, so it’s refreshing to see that there are at least some conservatives who recognize the need to breathe some new life into conservative thought. I also believe that our current political and governmental stagnation can be attributed largely to conservative ideological rigidity, so if the “reform conservatives” can badly wound the sort of thinking that leads our government to shuffle from crisis to crisis (in between shutdowns), then I say go get ‘em.

Reading through this New York Times profile of the “reformicons,” as they’ve come to be known, you start to get a better sense of just how difficult their task is. The difficulty stems from their own lofty ambitions — reformicon honcho Yuval Levin, per the Times, “envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire reimagining of it.” At this point, they sort of have to swing for the fences.

The reformicons are in a tough spot. They’re trying to cobble together a policy platform that appeals to conservatives while simultaneously fighting off the tainted legacies of the conservative intellectual flourishes that preceded it. And at the same time, they’re trying to roll back what they see as a terrible growth of big government socialism. That’s a lot to accomplish all at once.

The past decade has seen the electoral rebuke of conservative movements and the decline of its intellectual institutions. Trickle-down economics and its mania for piling tax cut upon tax cut for the wealthy is held in low regard – Barack Obama campaigned and won twice on promises to raise taxes on the rich. Neoconservatism and its promise of spreading freedom at gunpoint throughout the Middle East were discredited by the chaos in Iraq and caught harsh electoral rebukes in 2006 and 2008. Paul Ryan, champion of budget-slashing austerity, did nothing to help Mitt Romney win the presidency in 2012. The Heritage Foundation, once the intellectual driving force behind the Reagan Revolution, has deprioritized its policy output and now focuses primarily on activism and fundraising, serving as a sort of self-appointed purity police force for conservatives.

Out-of-date or out-of-favor, these people, institutions and ways of thinking still retain a great deal of influence within the Republican Party. For the average Republican, tax cuts remain the panacea for every economic ill, and the budget can be balanced by eviscerating social programs (while cutting taxes and boosting military spending). The resurgence of violent extremists in Iraq has the old neocon gang back together and advocating for a renewed commitment of men and materiel. Lurking in the background is the Tea Party, which has dragged the party further right and made anti-Obama obstructionism the only governing style it will tolerate.

The reformicons want to navigate this maze of ideological wreckage and emerge with something that will shake up conservative politics, but not be so antithetical to existing dogma that they get written off as RINOs. That’s no simple task. While some of their proposals are basically old ideas spit-shined and made to look new, they do offer some challenges to the conservative status quo. “Room to Grow,” the reformicon essay collection that lays out their basic agenda, argues that “many conservative polices worked in the 1980s – but conditions have changed, often dramatically, and conservatives haven’t changed sufficiently with them.” To the casual observer that may seem like a fairly obvious statement, but for conservatives that counts as radical thinking.

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But they’re also trying to maintain credibility by ignoring some of the more sensitive pressure points. “Room to Grow” is an economic agenda, focused on reforming and revitalizing conservative economic thought. Except, as the New Republic’s Danny Vinik points out, they don’t have much to say about monetary policy. “The words ‘monetary policy’ never appear in ‘Room to Grow.’ In fact, the Federal Reserve is only mentioned once in the 120-page book,” Vinik writes.

Vinik suspects – and he’s probably correct – that the reason for this omission is that the Federal Reserve has become a GOP punching bag in the Obama era, owing to its policy of buying up hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of bonds and securities to stimulate the economy. That policy, known as quantitative easing, has kept the economic roof from caving in over the past few years. The reformicons, as Vinik notes, are generally supportive of monetary stimulus. Republicans and conservatives, however, tend to frown upon economic stimulus that isn’t delivered in the form of tax cuts.

Another area the reformicons don’t touch on in “Room to Grow” is immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform’s demise at the hands of Republican intransigence was a reminder that the nativist wing of the party still has enough clout to affect policy outcomes. Immigration has become an intractable problem for conservatives. If you’re not sufficiently hostile to comprehensive reform, you get labeled an apostate RINO (just ask Eric Cantor), but backing the conservative push for “border security first” is the best way to further alienate Latino voters and precipitate the party’s demographic decline.

Foreign policy doesn’t factor into the reformicons’ calculus, nor do social issues. The people behind “Room to Grow” are socially conservative, but those aren’t the fights they want to pick. “Levin and [Ramesh] Ponnuru and other reformers also oppose same-sex marriage, but again choose not to make an issue of it,” the Times notes, “recognizing that the battle is lost – or soon will be, as indeed the culture war in general has been.” Perhaps it’s possible that the reformicons can simply wait out the anti-gay hard-liners who still have clout in the party, but the anti-marriage equality forces have proven to be nothing if not stubborn.

The tension at play between the reformist drive and the established intransigence is personified in the new poster boy for reform conservatism: Sen. Marco Rubio. The Florida Republican is earning plaudits from reformicons for embracing aspects of their policy vision. “Rubio understands the need for structural changes in programs, which is quite different, and rather more important than, simply reducing spending,” wrote “Room to Grow” contributor Peter Wehner. At the same time, Rubio has shown himself to be susceptible to pressure from the extreme right. After catching hell from the Tea Party, Rubio backed off his support for comprehensive immigration reform and said that he wouldn’t support the reform bill he helped move through the Senate. He supported the government shutdown over Obamacare (and then tried to argue after the fact that he’d never supported a shutdown).

Rubio quite obviously wants to be president and he clearly realizes that he can’t get there by being “severely conservative,” as Mitt Romney so memorably put it. But getting through the primaries requires obeisance to the extreme right and public demonstrations of faith in the established right-wing dogma. You can’t be both reformer and reformee at the same time. But that’s the path the reformicons have to navigate if they want their shot at power.

Simon Maloy
Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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