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May 29, 2013 4:36 PM The Very Low Threshold For What Conservatives Consider “Reform”

By Ed Kilgore

Ryan Cooper’s article from the May/June issue of the Monthly about would-be “conservative reformers” continues to help spur discussion, per this long, defensive NRO post by one of that tribe, Avik Roy.

Another set of progressive critics makes the case that, because conservative reform doesn’t represent a policy break from traditional conservative thinking, that it’s just a big marketing ploy to sell the conservative brand to swing voters. “In practice it will likely be more gestural than substantive,” writes Mike Konczal. Ryan Cooper calls the reformist approach “timid … so far,” with an over-emphasis on “messaging” rather than policy reform.

In seeking to rebut this criticism, Roy proceeds to, well, sort of make Ryan’s case all over again:

Progressive critics have focused on the fact that conservative reformers and traditional conservatives agree on policy. But they’ve missed this important philosophical difference between the liberty- and opportunity-oriented conservatives. The reason this philosophical difference matters is because it leads not to different policies, but different policy priorities.

What this turns out to mean is that while conventional conservatives obsess about tax rates, “reformers” look more at social policy:

[F]or the black mother who can’t convince a doctor to accept her Medicaid insurance, whose children are enrolled in failing urban schools, reducing tax rates can only be a part of the solution.
For these reasons, many of the conservative reformers have invested their energies in education and health-care reform, and in the fiscal reforms that make such reform possible

That sounds semi-plausible, if you understand that Roy is already conceding the actual proposals of “reformers” on non-tax as well as tax issues are largely indistinguishable from the folks they want to “reform.”

But in a separate take on Roy’s defense of “conservative reformers,” Ezra Klein exposes the essential emptiness of latter-day “compassionate conservative” social policy as reflected by one of its most prominent proponents:

On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net. The policies enshrined in his budget suggest that the poor are held back by the government spending too much money to cover the uninsured and too much money on food stamps and too much money on education and too much money on childhood nutrition and too much money on daycare.

This may be a bit unfair to Roy, since he appears to favor some more positive (if dubiously valuable) efforts aimed at po’ folks, like school vouchers. But Roy, like most “conservative reformers,” really protests too much: the scant differences between unreformed and reformed conservatives lead to the strong suspicion the latter are kept around mainly to provide cover for the former. The last big social policy fight among Republicans involving the poor that I can recall was back in 1999, when George W. Bush rebuked Tom DeLay and House Republicans for promoting a delay in Earned Income Tax Credit payments as a spending-reduction device. Nowadays the real novelty is finding a Republican willing to defend the existence of the EITC. So there’s a mighty low threshold for exhibiting greater compassion for the poor among conservatives, and accordingly, a very low threshold for what qualifies as “reform.”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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