This blog has long been generally supportive of the attempt by a handful of sane and intelligent conservative thinkers to brainstorm some kind of future for the American right. And who wouldn’t be? If the alternative is the brain dead 1979 redux position of someone like Kimberley Strassel, you gotta love Ross Douthat. But it strikes me there are deep challenges for this fledgling group of now Tanenhaus-blessed scholars, and they may be hard to overcome.
The first is the lack of any clear unifying theme or rallying cry that can meld policy to politics. “Reform” seems too vague and goo-goo a theme to catch on. On the core axis of more or less government, the reformicons rightly answer smaller, better government – but the “better” part always ends up a little duller than “smaller”. A child tax credit may or may not be a decent idea – but it’s very hard to fit it into the broader tradition of less government dependency. Ditto attempts to alleviate student debt, or to encourage the hiring of the long-term unemployed, or the block granting of anti-poverty funds to the states. All of them are hard to do when you demonize government itself as regularly as the Republican rank and file.
Perhaps the best scenario for a raft of such small, but potent policy proposals would be a Republican version of the Clinton administration – which bored the pants off ideologues but still connected with the tangible needs and concerns of most people. Alas, it’s hard to imagine a Clintonism of the right without a Clinton. It was Bill’s astonishing charm, loquaciousness, relentlessness and seduction that made these tedious laundry lists so popular. I do not see any such charismatic figure with such a direct and personal grasp of so many policy issues on the right. Maybe he or she will show up as a charismatic and brilliant governor. Or maybe not. If Ted Cruz is the new archetype of a Republican, never.
Within British conservatism, there are, in contrast, two competing traditions – Whig and Tory – that mitigate this problem. The Whiggish faction had its high watermark under Thatcher, a conservative who embraced market liberalism as the best foil to socialism. But the Tory faction never disappeared completely. Its rallying cry – and historical legacy – is “One Nation” Toryism, rooted in Disraeli’s conservative embrace of the working classes, and abhorrence at the vast social and economic inequalities of his time. It has no problem at all with government and its benefits. This would be a natural and identifiable tradition to embrace in Britain for a set of reformers like the Levin brigade. In America? No Disraeli ever existed – and no Bismarck either. Eisenhower may be the best analogue. And re-introducing Eisenhower to the next generation is a pretty heavy lift. The trouble with American conservatism is that it is, in essence, so new, and so wedded to a particular era, that it doesn’t have the depth and reach of a European conservatism that can provide a leader like Angela Merkel.
And then the reformicons are operating at a disadvantage in a culturally polarized America. It would be great if this were not the case – but since a huge amount of both parties’ base mobilization requires intensifying the cultural conflict, and since the divide is rooted in real responses to changing mores, it will likely endure. And that kind of climate makes pragmatic conservatism again less likely to get a hearing.
So, for example, I’m perfectly open to new ideas on, say, helping working class families with kids. But some pretty basic concerns about the current GOP on cultural issues – its open hostility to my own civil marriage, its absolutism on abortion, its panic at immigration, its tone-deafness on racial injustice – push me, and many others, into leaning Democrat for a while. And it’s important to note that even the reformicons are die-hard cultural and religious conservatives in most respects. On those questions, there is no airing of the idea of reform. David Cameron’s post-Thatcher re-tooling of British conservatism took at least two major issues associated with the left-of-center – marriage equality and climate change – and embraced them fully. If the reformicons could do something like that, they would begin to gain traction outside of a few circles in DC and in the country at large. But they won’t; and, given the rigidity of the GOP base on those issues, can’t.
Then there’s the absence of any foreign policy vision. The fixation on domestic policy is welcome – but the greatest disaster in Republican government in the last decade was the Iraq War, and, more broadly, the massive over-reach of big government in trying to re-make the world into a democratic wonderland. To some extent, Rand Paul and Mike Lee have shown an ability to tackle this question – and favor a serious continuation of Obama’s de-leveraging of the US abroad, along with a further dismantling of the Cheney infrastructure for the war on terror. But the reformicons have never issued a clear rejection of Cheneyism, and indeed seem, f0r the most part, like unreconstructed neocons abroad. I can’t see any of them demanding some concessions from Israel for a two-state solution, for example, or any policy toward Iran but war. But they’re mainly silent on these questions – which also marginalizes them. The most important Republican debate, it seems to me, is about the role of the US in the world in the 21st Century. Hegemon? Democratizer? Or simply great power? On this, the reformicons are silent. Their predecessors in the debates of the 1970s weren’t.
But maybe I’m being too glum. There are always unforeseen events to alter the future. Reagan’s 1980 victory was not seen until a few weeks before the November election. It’s certainly possible, although unlikely, that a Republican could win the presidency in 2016. But what I’d look for in the meantime in the reformicon future is what contribution they could make in the last two years of the Obama presidency. If the GOP controls both Houses, the country might look to them for some legislative action that the president could sign onto. If the country sees signs of actual policy progress, affecting their actual lives, thanks to reform conservative ideas and a pragmatic liberal president, then the atmosphere could change. Alas, I see the likelihood of that, in our current context, and in the run-up to 2016, to be close to impossible. It may take another epic national defeat for the GOP to take the reformers seriously. It took three consecutive lost national elections for the Tories to find Cameron. And part of me thinks that the best hope for the reformicons in the long run will be a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016.
I wonder how many of them, as they go to sleep at night, have quietly agreed with that.