May/ June 2013 Reformish Conservatives

Meet the handful of conservative writers who are suggesting, respectfully, that the GOP change its policies.

By Ryan Cooper

There are two striking facts about the apparent glasnost that has broken out among Republicans since their shocking (to them) November election losses. The first is how timid the rethinking has been so far. There is much talk, in the Republican National Committee’s recent “autopsy” report and elsewhere, of the need to change the party’s “messaging,” but little about the need to change the policies behind the messaging. The second striking fact is how long it’s taken just to get this far. The GOP failed to win a majority of votes in five of the last six presidential elections. Only now is the party beginning to wonder out loud if maybe its doctrinaire conservative approach to politics isn’t working.

The Democratic Party’s equivalent period of soul searching played out quite differently. As early as the late 1970s, a major rethinking of traditional liberal ideas and policies about crime, welfare, entitlement programs, and much more was under way at magazines like the Washington Monthly and the New Republic—this at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. In 1984, only four years after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential win, reformist Democrats had their own popular primary candidate, Gary Hart. In 1985, the centrist-reform Democratic Leadership Council was founded. By 1988, two charter members of the DLC, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt, were running for president. By 1992, a former DLC chairman, Bill Clinton, won the office.

Compare this to Republicans. It’s two decades after Bill Clinton’s first presidential victory, and there is still no Republican equivalent of the DLC. During last year’s GOP primary, the only candidate who ran as a moderate reformer, Jon Huntsman, garnered almost no party support, quit in disgust, and started advocating for a third party.

The one commonality between the two reform periods is that, as with Democrats in the 1970s, the rethinking on the right today, such as it is, is being led by a loose network of reformist writers and policy intellectuals—though the task on the conservative side is more treacherous than it generally was for liberals. In 2005, former Reagan Treasury official and Jack Kemp acolyte Bruce Bartlett questioned the fiscal rectitude of the Republicans for, among other things, adding an expensive new entitlement, Medicare Part D, without budget cuts or tax increases to offset the massive new costs. For his temerity, his employer, the National Center for Policy Analysis, a free market think tank, fired him. Five years later, conservative journalist and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum criticized Republicans for failing to negotiate with Democrats on Obamacare; he too lost his job, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Most of the conservative journalists and writers who make up the reformist camp today—people like Ramesh Ponnuru and Reihan Salam of the National Review, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner, and Yuval Levin of National Affairs—have been more tentative and selective in their critiques of Republican policy than Bartlett and Frum. The average conservative reformist output consists of about three articles bashing liberal statism for every one questioning Republican dogma. To retain an audience among Republicans, one must be “considerate of the contours of conservative opinion,” Ponnuru told me.

By being careful in what they say, a number of these writers have built audiences among party elites, and increasingly so since November, according to interviews with Republican House and Senate staffers. “They’re addressing ideas in policy spaces where there may be gaps,” says Neil Bradley, an aide to Eric Cantor. “Ramesh is widely regarded as a smart and insightful thinker,” agrees a Senate Republican aide. The reformists are read in Marco Rubio’s office; Paul Ryan’s office is a fan of Levin.

It is easy, however, to exaggerate their influence. “There is a cultural gulf,” says John Feehery, a former staffer for Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, between the reformist writer-intellectuals, with their New York/Washington sensibilities, and Republican officeholders, with their base of voters in Texas, Kansas, and Georgia. The reformists “are speaking the language of policy,” notes Feehery, while the base “is speaking the language of hating Obama.”

Frankly, the Republican reformists face an extremely steep climb. In the ’80s, the Democratic reform project was helped enormously by the fact that their ideas were eagerly embraced by Democratic politicians of the day from red states and swing districts who were looking for fresh ideas that would appeal to the moderate voters they needed to win. Today’s Republicans, by contrast, are mainly concerned with avoiding a primary challenge from the right in 2014 and often seem barely interested in ideas at all, fresh or otherwise. Compared to ages past, “there is a lot less entrepreneurship in the House GOP,” says Ponnuru. Too many congressional Republicans “just wait for instructions.” But if in 2016 a Republican presidential contender can break free from the death grip of conservative Know-Nothingism and still succeed electorally, the reformers whose profiles follow may well become very influential indeed.


Bio: Now the lead writer for the Bloomberg View’s Ticker Blog, Barro started his journalism career as an analyst for the Manhattan Institute. He is the son of noted conservative economist Robert Barro.

Age: 28

Issues: Barro writes primarily about economics, finance, and politics. After leaving the Manhattan Institute, he has become a progressively more trenchant critic of the conservative movement, coming to favor Obamacare and increasing Social Security benefits. However, that makes him one of only a handful of conservatives who do serious work on health care. In addition, he is one of a few thinkers pushing for expanding free market, conservative principles into new areas; for example, he favors reducing zoning restrictions for America’s big liberal cities, to reduce rents and enable greater density, and weakening intellectual property protections, especially software patents, in order to spur innovation.

Notable fact: Barro was one of the leading voices in favor of the platinum coin stratagem to get around Republicans taking the debt limit hostage.

Quote: “Conservatives’ first preference is to get government out of the way; their second preference seems to be government cutting checks indiscriminately.”

Reformist score: 9

Influence inside GOP: 2


Bio: A former policy adviser for Reagan and Bush I, and the author of several books, Bartlett is now a writer for the New York Times Economix blog, the Financial Times, and elsewhere.

Age: 61

Issues: Probably the first member of this generation of reformists, Bartlett was happily ensconced in the right-wing think tank world until the passage of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit. This led to more and more fierce criticism of President Bush, culminating in Bartlett’s 2005 book Imposter, for which he was fired from his position at the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) and ostracized from conservative circles.

Bartlett retains much of his Reagan-era conservatism on things like tax reform and trimming social insurance. He has moved left on economics, embracing Keynesian policy and monetary stimulus under depression conditions, but his biggest break with Republicans is in the strident and sometimes bitter language he uses to attack their perceived failings.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • reflectionephemeral on May 06, 2013 9:15 AM:

    Josh Barro has gotten more strident of late too. "Republican engagement with health policy is 100 percent cynical. And if conservatives who write about health policy for a living arenít cynics, they should be far more exasperated about that fact than they appear to be."

    Maybe that counts as restrained because he didn't write the more general, still accurate, "Republican engagement on all domestic and foreign policy is 100 percent cynical."

    Douthat & Salam's reformist bona fides may well have been cemented with "Grand New Party"; they were thrown away by 2009, as they failed to engage with GOP behavior in the real world. They'd written a few years before, in their "Party of Sam's Club" article in Weekly Standard, that "Mitt Romney has proposed in Massachusetts that health insurance be made universal by making it mandatory. Allowing individuals to forgo coverage encourages the young and healthy to live dangerously, giving them a free ride on the public purse when things go awry, and making health care more expensive for everyone else. If you expect government to step in when the going gets tough, you have an obligation to make a contribution." As that policy was decried as socialist fascism by their co-partisans, they lacked the courage of someone like David Frum (who noted that flipping out and shrieking about "death panels" was rather a poor substitute for talking about real-world policy issues). Douthat and Salam held their tongues, wrote gingerly about the issue, and shifted focus from pressing policy challenges. (Douthat wrote a book about how America was more Christian in the 1950s).

    The reason the GOP can't reform is because it no longer involves any policy views; it's an attitude, a projection of resentment onto out groups, and onto government if it is perceived to be assisting out groups. Any conservative policy can instantly and effectively be bashed as unconstitutional tyranny (see, e.g. RomneyCare). Every Republican politician fears losing a primary to some Christine O'Donnell or Richard Mourdock (whose successful, unpatriotic ads attacked Sen. Lugar for cooperating with Democrats to curtail the spread of loose nuclear weapons). So Republican politicians don't bother to propose policies. The closest they get is Paul Ryan-style, back-of-the-envelope fantasies. If you criticize those attitudes or proto-policies, well, that's just proof you're not really One of Us after all.

  • toowearyforoutrage on May 10, 2013 12:14 PM:

    "By 1992, a former DLC chairman, Bill Clinton, won the office."

    with 43% of the vote.
    And 48% in 1996 despite a ROBUST economy.

    The DLC was effing disastrous and it took 14 years to undo the damage of the "New Democrats".

    Howard Dean reminded Democrats of the days before Reagan when we actually WON sometimes. Result? 60 vote majority and universal healthcare.

    The Democratic reform of the reform in 2006 yielded a president that won majorities of the American public BOTH times.

    That said, Democrats DO engage in navel-gazing and sometimes it's productive. Republicans find self-doubt, and introspection anathema. Pundits urging them to repudiate ANY of their platform have an uphill battle.

  • jw on May 10, 2013 6:21 PM:

    I'm curious why there aren't more women on this list.

  • Kal Lis on May 13, 2013 9:26 PM:

    I'm surprised Conor Friedersdorf didn't make your list.

  • JK74 on May 22, 2013 8:25 PM:

    tooweary: So if Bill Clinton only won 43% of the vote, why wasn't GHW Bush re-elected? And if he got less than 50% of the vote in 1996 (actually 49.2%, according to Wikipedia), why wasn't Bob Dole president? Look up "Ross Perot", if you've forgotten. While you could make a case that Perot cost Bush the '92 election (just as Nader cost Gore election in 2000), it's much harder to argue that for '96. And even so, Clinton won more votes than any other individual candidate in both years - which can't be said of GWB in 2000.

  • harvey on May 25, 2013 12:03 PM:

    It's always amusing to read what the hard Left thinks conservatives should be doing. ;-)

  • harvey on May 25, 2013 12:10 PM:

    Seriously though, you all should consider defining "conservative" as we conservatives do, and not as you do, and not as the various faux conservatives do. That will improve your analysis some, and you won't be publishing lists completely unusable as anything other than confirmation of the Left's epistemic closure.

    That would imply that multiple names should be removed from your list, including Frum, Douthat, Brooks, etc. Yes, they are not with you lefties all the time, but they are almost never with we conservatives, if ever.

  • dougmuder on May 28, 2013 8:31 AM:

    @harvey: If the authors didn't expand the definition of "conservative", there wouldn't be any reformers to write about.