May/ June 2013 Reformish Conservatives

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

By Ryan Cooper

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.

Age: 35

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.

Age: 44

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.

Age: 38

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.

Age: 33

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.

Age: 40

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.

Age: 33

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.

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.