The "reformicons" are stuck in neutral: Trump, anger and nativism leaves movement DOA

There's a push to remake the GOP — but the nativist base won't entertain anything that reeks of moderation

Published August 8, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

A Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Cleveland. July 18, 2016.   (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
A Donald Trump supporter at a rally in Cleveland. July 18, 2016. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Every once in a while some editor at a mainstream news organization decides it is time to once again check in with the movement of reform conservatives – “reformicons” – to see if they still think that conditions in the Republican Party are finally ripe for their slightly modified conservative dogma to take hold. And wouldn’t you know it, the answer is always a cautious “Yes, possibly!”

So last week we got the latest entry in this predictable genre from The New York Times. This follows on the heels of hearing how worried but cautiously optimistic reformicons were that their ideas would get a hearing within the GOP in January, which was preceded by writers on the left recognizing those ideas were dead on arrival in November, preceded by hearing reformicons were worried about their future in August, which was preceded by the Wall Street Journal reporting on their “provocative” ideas in February, which seemed to be a comeback from the eye-rolls that the movement had engendered after a Times article a year before

Anyway, you get the idea.

The writer of the latest piece, Jackie Calmes, called up a few members and sympathizers of the movement, who told her that, thanks to the candidacy of Donald Trump that is currently upending the Republican Party, they see “an opening through which to push their prescriptions” for conservatism, to update slightly its domestic economic policies from the Reagan era to the twenty-first century. As described by the Times, these prescriptions include,

  • Reject additional tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year, but expand breaks for low- and middle-income workers through tax credits for children, the earned-income tax credit or a new wage subsidy that would provide a guaranteed minimum income.TR
  • Promote the benefits of global trade agreements, but help displaced workers.
  • Rule out privatizing Social Security and Medicare, and reassure workers they will be exempt from cost-cutting.
  • Acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, but push for market-oriented changes.
  • Disavow mass deportations and promote the economic benefits of legalizing longtime workers who are in the country illegally, but reduce the legal entry of less-skilled immigrants.

To their credit, this isn’t really the usual warmed-over conservatism that has characterized the thinking of reformicons in the past. Rejecting additional tax cuts for the wealthy, for starters, has been anathema to conservatives for decades. And still will be in the near future, at least among conservative elites – the Times quotes Grover Norquist, of the infamous “no tax increases ever” pledge that nearly every GOP politician has had to sign since the Reagan administration or risk losing his seat, scoffing at the very idea.

As Brian Beutler points out, this list of policy ideas is actually warmed-over centrism of the kind that might go over well with the technocratic wing of the Democratic Party. I’d add that it would have gone over better in the early part of the Obama era, when the president was still making efforts to reach out to the GOP. Now the Democrats have marched solidly to the left. Even with a moderate technocrat like Hillary Clinton leading the party, there is a newly empowered left wing that will push for more than “market-oriented changes” to the ACA, and is unlikely to “promote the benefits” of trade agreements in the next administration.

Mostly, though, these proposals highlight just how wide the gap is between conservative elites and the angry nativist base that has fallen for Trump. The elites are having high-level arguments over whether to push for tax cuts for the wealthy and accept the ACA. They are either arguing against their candidate or hiding out, preparing to take their lumps in the fall and then, when the election is over, to come back out and reclaim the party.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s voters have fallen for Trumpism, which has little use for ideology or policy. Mostly they are a seething mass of rage at undocumented immigrants, the Black Lives Matter movement, Islamic terrorists – whatever Donald Trump is telling them to be scared of at any given moment. They are unlikely to disappear after the election.

The reformicons might be part of the argument between the elites, but there is no reason to think that their modest reforms to GOP dogma will take hold with that group. Meanwhile, the nativist base won’t listen to anything that reeks of moderation, even if that moderation would benefit them. (Does anyone really foresee the GOP accepting the reality of the ACA and its voters going along with that?) Which leaves the reformicons exactly where they have always been – in limbo, bereft of support within the Republican Party, and unable to effect the changes the GOP will need if it is going to be a viable political party in the future.

By Gary Legum

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