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May 23, 2013 2:33 PM Gadflies are Useful for a Political Party

By Ryan Cooper

Jonathan Chait has a nice profile of Josh Barro in the newest Atlantic that fits in nicely with my recent piece on conservative reformists. I found that there is basically a spectrum of reformists, ranging from the cautious sort who are careful to preserve their party standing (eg David Brooks) to the the radical sort who toss rhetorical grenades with gleeful aplomb (eg Bruce Bartlett).

The arc of Chait’s piece is Barro’s transition from the first group to the second:

The surprising thing is that Barro, the son of the prominent orthodox-conservative economist Robert Barro, is the one who has done it. The elder Barro has called the stimulus “the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s,” or simply “garbage,” and he has appeared regularly on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where he has denounced “the Obama Road to Serfdom.” Until very recently, nothing about his son’s career had suggested that the apple would fall far from the tree. Josh Barro volunteered for Romney during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, interned for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, landed a job as a Koch Associate at the Tax Foundation, and eventually migrated to the Manhattan Institute and started writing for [Reihan] Salam’s blog at National Review. In early 2010, after Paul Ryan unveiled his sweeping budget overhaul, Barro and Salam wrote a 3,000-word article for National Review laying out the standard conservative-reformist assessment. Ryan’s plan, in their telling, was bold and praiseworthy, and its flaws merely opportunities for future refinement and improvement. “Far from a reckless plot to ravage the welfare state,” they wrote, “Ryan’s roadmap is a sober, responsible preview of the hard choices we’ll have to make.” […]
Barro’s willingness to not only speak out plainly, but also speak out against those who won’t join him in doing so, is what has lent his apostasy such force. I met with Salam the morning after Barro and his erstwhile allies had had a particularly pointed exchange. “If conservative health wonks really cared about health reform, wouldn’t they be exasperated” with Republican elected officials “for never following through?,” Barro jeered on Twitter. “Yet they seem oddly content within the GOP coalition. It’s as if they don’t really care all that much” about actual reform. The debate had cut to the heart of what separates Barro from most of the other conservative reformers: Barro increasingly sees their refusal to confront the reality of the Republican stance as a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

Understandably, this doesn’t go over so well with the more genteel reformists:

The reformers take deep umbrage at the accusation. Salam explained that he considers himself basically in agreement with Barro on ends, but completely in disagreement on means. What Barro calls dishonesty, Salam sees, not unreasonably, as the compromises necessary to give the reform movement a hearing within the GOP and, over time, to nudge the party in a different direction. “The truly public-spirited person,” Salam told me, “is part of a team, and makes their team smarter and better to the extent they can.” Douthat likewise retorted on Twitter, “It’s also hard to change a political coalition if you make it clear that you basically despise its members.”
Barro, for his part, is perfectly aware of the political dynamic. “I don’t expect them to be more responsive to my sticks than to Reihan’s carrots,” he told me.

It will be an interesting milestone as to the progression of the reformist movement to see whether Barro is scourged from the conservative movement as Bruce Bartlett was. The tendency to purge RINO unbelievers has been devastating for the conservative movement, encouraging groupthink and Lysenkoist dogmatism, and has produced a cult of purity that churns out incredibly weak candidates for high office. Gadflies like Barro could serve an important check on these impulses—part of the party’s intellectual immune system, if you will, which is in notable disrepair.

This is not to excuse the left exactly—Lord knows there are gobs of Democratic hacks—just to observe that people like Glenn Greenwald are still (so far) tolerated on this side.

We’ll be watching this story carefully.

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

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