Meet the handful of conservative writers who are suggesting, respectfully, that the GOP change its policies.
He is a bit skeptical of the reformist camp, which he says is “heavily focused on domestic issues” and has not fully reckoned with the disastrous failure of the Iraq War. But he has a loyal, if small, readership among the Republican rank-and-file, and with President Obama’s relative hawkishness, his views on foreign policy have some chance of percolating to the top in 2016.
Notable fact: Larison was once a member of the League of the South.
Quote: “Prolonged, costly wars always become unpopular, but this has not seemed to diminish popular enthusiasm for entering into new ones.”
Reformist score: 7
Influence inside GOP: 2
Bio: An Israeli-born former policy staffer for George W. Bush, he is the founding editor of National Affairs, the successor to Irving Kristol’s Public Interest.
Issues: Levin is a sort of ideological gunnery sergeant for the Republican Party. His specialty is urbane, elegantly written articles decrying liberal statism and putting an intellectual sheen on, say, cutting social insurance. This sometimes takes him in interesting directions; his manifesto “Beyond the Welfare State” started with a clarion call against liberal intellectual exhaustion and ended with a proposal to, in essence, replace Medicare with Obamacare.
His magazine occasionally runs heterodox pieces on subjects like patent reform and reducing income inequality, but for the most part Levin hews to the conservative Republican agenda and his role is to provide the party with shells that will fire. He will be a person to watch; should the party consensus change, he will be the first to demonstrate it.
Quote: “Again and again in our history, passionate waves of resistance to authority have rattled our politics, while periods of trust in the state have been rare.”
Reformist score: 3
Influence inside GOP: 10
Bio: Pethokoukis is a blogger for the American Enterprise Institute and occasional National Review columnist. Previously he was a columnist for Reuters and U.S. News & World Report.
Issues: A list of reformists made in 2011 would probably not have included Pethokoukis. But within the last eighteen months or so, he has undergone a rather startling evolution on most of his economic positions, morphing from a budget-slashing inflation paranoiac in the mold of Paul Ryan and Herbert Hoover to a more heterodox right-of-center economic pundit.
This means that he supports a nominal growth target for the Federal Reserve and favors increased high-skill immigration; he opposes a balanced budget amendment, tight money, and a flat tax.
Quote: “Free enterprise, free markets, competition, and choice: All are timeless economic principles, but their application can and should evolve with changing economic circumstances.”
Reformist score: 6
Influence inside GOP: 4
Bio: A longtime senior editor of National Review and Bloomberg View columnist, Ponnuru also works at the American Enterprise Institute.
Issues: Ponnuru was once a hardline social conservative. His 2006 book, Party of Death, was an anti-Democrat polemic. But as Republicans’ electoral fortunes ebbed and ebbed, he has become a more confident, innovative voice. He favors turning away from Republicans’ beloved marginal tax cuts toward more family- and middle-class-friendly policy, such as cutting the payroll tax and increasing the child tax credit, though he remains quite socially conservative at heart.
He has probably the greatest influence out of all the serious reformists. After the 2012 Republican shellacking, he was invited to their retreat in Williamsburg to deliver a speech based on his bracing explanation of GOP defeat, “The Party’s Problem.” With the exception of Yuval Levin, no one else can match that level of respectful attention.
Notable position: Ponnuru is one of the few monetary policy doves on the right, pushing for more Federal Reserve action against the goldbuggery and hard money fetishism of the Tea Party wing.
Quote: “Romney was not a drag on the Republican party. The Republican party was a drag on him.”
Reformist score: 8
Influence inside GOP: 9
Bio: By far the strangest member of the reformist caucus, Poulos is a producer at HuffPost Live, and writes for Vice and Forbes.
Issues: Poulos is stylistically wild, both in prose and in person; he has moderated himself somewhat now, but he has previously indulged a tendency for elaborate metaphysical exegesis, colossal sideburns, and brightly colored suits. He favors an eclectic bunch of reformist causes—things like restraining the surveillance state, “beating back” the prison-industrial complex, and breaking up the largest banks.
But where he stands out most among the reformist crowd is his cultural criticism, which sometimes leans Jonathan Franzen-esque in its suspicion of capitalism’s side effects. (A recent column was titled “Clubbed by Growth.”) His best work of late is analysis of the increasing domination of political journalism by data-obsessed wonks: “In the wonkocracy, your human being is little more than a wisp of poetry, something that might be nice to whisper about tipsily over a plate of sea urchin foam, but something no professional would try to make room for in their work on policy.”
Notable distinction: Possibly uniquely among right-leaning pundits, Poulos is frontman and guitarist for a rock band, Black Hi-Lighter.
Quote: “Being a political pundit is actually like fronting a band. You suck at both for pretty much identical reasons.”
Reformist score: 8
Influence inside GOP: 1
Bio: A former health care policy adviser for the Romney campaign, Roy writes for Forbes and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
Issues: Roy writes almost entirely about health care, which makes him a rare breed indeed in conservative circles. “There was not a single session about health care at CPAC,” he sighs. Despite years of work, he and his fellow conservative health care wonks have yet to come up with a feasible alternative to Obamacare that would solve the problem of the uninsured sick, largely because most of their best ideas are contained within the law already.
However, he is unfailingly respectful and polite, and eschews the bitter resentment of the Republican base, which has made him a popular guest on left-leaning TV. “Politics is not the forum to change the culture,” he says.
Notable history: Roy got his start along with Josh Barro guest-blogging for Reihan Salam.
Quote: “The thoroughness of the Republican defeat in 2012 opened a lot of people’s eyes.”
Reformist score: 5
Influence inside GOP: 5
Bio: The son of Bangladeshi immigrants, Salam has probably the most eclectic intellect among the reformists. He currently writes for Reuters and National Review; previously he’s worked for the New America Foundation, the New Republic, the New York Times, and the Atlantic.
Issues: Like Douthat (his coauthor for Grand New Party) and Ponnuru, Salam favors a more explicitly pro-middle-class agenda than what is currently in vogue among Republicans. This includes tax reform, increased immigration, and some sort of workable replacement for Obamacare, as well as more esoteric proposals like ending the favorable treatment of debt in the tax code.
Notable quality: In person, Salam is almost impossible to keep pace with. Presented with a question, he tends to tackle it from six different directions simultaneously, developing arguments and picking holes in all of them in real time.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.