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May 31, 2013 5:17 PM Two Biggest Ideological Challenges For “Conservative Reformers”

By Ed Kilgore

Of all the conservative responses to the discussion about “conservative reform” which progressives, notably our own Ryan Cooper, have conducted, the latest from one of Ryan’s subjects, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, is the most interesting and least evasive. Acknowledging the criticisms of “conservative reformers” for vagueness and timidity, Douthat tries to separate the “reforming” sheep from “rebranding” goats, and goes so far as to essay an actual (domestic-only) policy agenda.

An awful lot of Douthat’s critique of conventional conservatism and his positive agenda is familiar to anyone who’s read his and fellow-reformer Reihan Salam’s periodic efforts to pursue “Sam’s Club Republicanism,” a policy and messaging strategy based on the simple premise that the GOP ought to champion the economic interests and cultural values of its most faithful followers, non-upscale white folks, even if that means departing from limited-government Gospel. So you see his favorite policy idea, “family-friendly tax reform” that reinforces the economic standing of “traditional families” of modest means. Beyond that, because he thinks conservatives should not reflexively defend whatever the business community wants, he encourages an assault on government-provided subsidies and a hostility to big banks. (His support for “market monetarism,” meaning an aversion to the hard-money idolatry of the Pauls and many other ideologues, is reasonably provocative coming from a conservative, though its main champion is another “reformer,” Ramesh Ponnuru). Beyond that, his recommended agenda is mostly conventional: Ryan-style “entitlement reform,” a bare-bones version of health reform, a resolute defense of cultural “traditionalism” (e.g., anti-choice on abortion), though presented more intelligently. His position on immigration is as confused as that of his party.

While I welcome Douthat’s essay as constructive and illuminating, I do have to say that his kind of “conservative reform” faces two major challenges, beyond the little matter of its lack of support from actual Republican politicians, which he acknowledges (as well he might, since his original patron, Tim Pawlenty, largely abandoned the “Sam’s Club Republican” agenda when he ran for president in 2012, and lost anyway).

The first is the most obvious: Douthat’s desire for a conservative economic message that doesn’t boil down to “job-creators know best” is not one he pursues that aggressively, and which cuts against a very powerful combination of ideological and donor interests in the GOP. On the first point, I suspect his zest for an anti-corporate subsidy agenda might not go much farther than the usual bashing of alternative-energy subsidies. A real reorientation of conservative economic thinking requires challenging the very basic assumption that capital rather than labor is the source of all good things, and thus that public policy must on every issue—taxes, regulation, trade, labor policy—bend to the almighty will of business owners.

The second challenge to any “conservative reformer,” which Douthat does not even touch upon, is the fact that the currently ascendant ideological tendency on the Right and in the GOP defines any serious “reform,” and indeed any acknowledgement of the need to adjust to economic or political realities, as heresy. “Constitutional conservatives,” whether they lean libertarian or theocratic, stand firmly for the proposition that there is an eternally relevant, eternally effective, and most of all morally obligatory set of governing policies that brook no “reform,” ever. Mostly rooted in a Golden Age of strictly limited government power and traditionalist culture, probably peaking in the Coolidge Administration, the “constitutional conservative” agenda proclaims itself to be the same today and fifty and a hundred years from now. Jim DeMint isn’t interested in utilizing public policy to address the particular needs of working families right now or ever. Rand Paul doesn’t care about the empirical evidence for and against his positions unless it supports them entirely. And “constitutional conservatives,” almost all of them, could not care less about reflecting public opinion, except as it might bear on pure strategy and tactics; their whole argument is that quasi-absolute property rights and patriarchal culture should stand eternally against any and all popular majorities, even if that requires limiting or in extremis abolishing democracy.

The scary thing is that “constitutional conservatives” think of themselves as the only genuine “conservative reformers;” every one else is a RINO or a squish or a whore who wants to buy votes with inherently illegitimate public-sector initiatives. And the problem with many of those who truly do want to “reform” conservatism or the Republican Party is that while they are debating with each other and with progressives, the “constitutional conservatives are playing for keeps without self-doubt or any interest in compromise.

Better deal with that, Ross.

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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