Features

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.

jbarroJOSH BARRO

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

bartlettBRUCE BARTLETT

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.

Notable fact: After being fired from the NCPA, times were so hard for Bartlett that he didn’t make enough money to pay federal income tax for several years.

Quote: “Unless the Republican Party can move beyond its base, it faces political euthanasia down the road.”

Reformist score: 9

Influence inside GOP: 2

brooksDAVID BROOKS

Bio: Probably the most prominent reformist, Brooks is the more senior New York Times house conservative and currently teaches a class at Yale about the lost virtue of humility. Previously, he wrote for the Wall Street Journal op-ed page.

Age: 51

Issues: Brooks is fond of intellectual sophistication for its own sake, and was one of the primary exponents of what he called “national greatness conservatism,” involving national service, manned missions to Mars, and other “great projects designed to physically and spiritually unify the nation,” which has since fallen out of favor with the rise of the Tea Party. Though his substantive positions are often difficult to tease out, he doesn’t share the fixation on slashing government of, say, Paul Ryan. He often joins Ross Douthat in anxiety over the changing social norms, though not so strongly.

Brooks uses his column to promote the work of reformers like Ponnuru and Levin, and, like them, tries to keep at least one foot firmly planted in the GOP camp even as he explores the borders of respectable dissent. After lambasting the right for whatever nonsense is consuming them at the moment, sometimes in quite cutting terms, he can be relied upon to use his next column to blame it all on President Obama.

Notable position: Brooks endorsed same-sex marriage in 2003.

Quote: “It is especially painful when narcissists suffer memory loss because they are losing parts of the person they love most.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 5

carneyTIM CARNEY

Bio: Carney is a senior columnist and blogger for the Washington Examiner.

Age: 34

Issues: A self-described “conservative populist,” Carney fumes at preferential government treatment of any kind. This leads him not only to lambaste the green energy subsidies in the Obama stimulus, but also to propose busting up the largest banks, taking the wood ax to corporate welfare, and slashing farm subsidies. He also leans anti-intervention in foreign policy, though not to the same degree as Daniel Larison.

He is strongly anti-nanny state; he savaged Michael Bloomberg’s soda ban as well as rules proposed by the local D.C. government to ban food trucks from most of downtown.

Notable position: Carney has a suspicion of the money politics of the political system one rarely sees on the right. “Both parties are beholden to their donors,” he says.

Quote: “I’ve been writing on the same themes for seven years, and since the 2012 election Republicans have been more receptive than ever before.”

Reformist score: 6

Influence inside GOP: 3

douthatROSS DOUTHAT

Bio: One of two New York Times house conservatives, Douthat was previously a blogger and senior editor for the Atlantic. A Catholic convert and Harvard graduate, he lives in Washington, D.C.

Age: 33

Issues: A genteel, paternalistic social conservative, Douthat alternates between lengthy theological noodling, handwringing over the evolution of societal norms, and increasingly aggressive criticism of the Republican Party, especially its economic agenda. He has moderated his social conservatism, correctly perceiving that the gay-bashers of the 2004 election are going to be remembered as Bull Connors in the very near future. But he remains anti-abortion, anti-porn, and skeptical of gay marriage, if resigned to its inevitability.

His reformist bona fides were cemented with the 2008 publication of Grand New Party, coauthored with Reihan Salam. Douthat argues that the party is largely captive to its wealthy donor class, and that its recent socially liberal turn (toward immigration reform and softening opposition to same-sex marriage) is as likely as not to backfire by alienating social conservatives without winning anyone else over.

Quote: “A party elite can rebel against its own base successfully, but only if there’s a bigger base waiting to be built.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 5

frumDAVID FRUM

Bio: Another former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Frum is now a columnist and blogger for the Daily Beast.

Age: 52

Issues: Frum has always been somewhat critical of the conservative movement; his 1994 book Dead Right attacked much of extant Republicanism while trying to defend a pure conservatism. In a 2010 article, he chastised Republicans for refusing to negotiate with Democrats over Obamacare, forcing the Dems to pass it on a party line and thereby foregoing any chance at influencing the final policy. He was subsequently fired from his position at the American Enterprise Institute. This turned him into a full-fledged reformist; he embraced gay marriage, pushes for some gun control, and worries about income inequality.

He still identifies himself as a conservative Republican and remains a hardline hawk on foreign affairs, especially with respect to Israel. But with his dramatic shift to the left on domestic policy and his relentless criticism of the GOP, his main audience now is among liberals, and few conservatives pay him heed.

Notable quality: Frum is a distant cousin of Paul Krugman.

Quote: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”

Reformist score: 7

Influence inside GOP: 2

gersonwehnerMICHAEL GERSON/PETER WEHNER

Bios: A former chief speechwriter for George W. Bush, Gerson has since become a Washington Post columnist. Wehner, who also wrote speeches for Bush, is a former Weekly Standard columnist who now writes for Commentary and the Post.

Ages: 48/52

Issues: Though in the past these two sometimes criticized the right, neither one really qualified as a reformist until after the 2012 election, cemented by the March publication of a cowritten Commentary article entitled “How to Save the Republican Party.” In the piece they proposed economic policies more focused on middle- and working-class families. They also advocated ending corporate welfare and breaking up the biggest banks, immigration reform, pivoting away from Randian hyper-individualism, softening their message on gay marriage, and accepting the conclusions of science. This report was widely read enough to be quoted in the official RNC “autopsy,” the analysis of why the party lost the 2012 election.

Quote: “First, and most important, is focusing on the economic concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, many of whom now regard the Republican Party as beholden to ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and as wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans.”

Reformist score: 5

Influence inside GOP: 6

larisonDANIEL LARISON

Bio: Based in Texas and sporting a PhD in Byzantine history, Larison writes primarily about foreign affairs for the American Conservative, a magazine founded by Pat Buchanan.

Age: 34

Issues: An acerbic critic of American interventionism in both parties, Larison has few fans among the GOP’s neoconservative wing. However, his brand of paleoconservatism is on the upswing among the more libertarian-minded Republicans, most recently on display during Rand Paul’s famous filibuster.

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

levinYUVAL LEVIN

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

pethoJAMES PETHOKOUKIS

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

ponnuruRAMESH PONNURU

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

poulosJAMES POULOS

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

royAVIK ROY

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

salamREIHAN SALAM

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.

Quote: “Glenn Beck … is good for the country because he gives the small fraction of cable-watching American adults who are seriously alarmed by the threat of communism taking hold in the United States the sense that they are being listened to, and my instinct is that this will keep them from embracing more extreme views.”

Reformist score: 7

Influence inside GOP: 5

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

Comments

  • 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.