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June 03, 2013 5:03 PM Frum’s Conservative Reform Checklist

By Ed Kilgore

As you may have heard, the conservative commentator David Frum (one of the “reformish conservative” writers profiled by Ryan Cooper in the May/June issue of the Washington Monthly) is shutting down his Daily Beast-hosted blog for a variety of family reasons. By way of at least temporary farewell, Frum offers five “essential tasks to commence before conservative reform rolls forward.” I’m going to quote them in full because they are unusually illuminating:

1) There remain too many taboos and shibboleths even among the conservative reformers. If the only policy tool you allow yourself to use is tax credits, your reform agenda will sputter into ineffectuality. Conservative reformers need to do a better job of starting with the problem and working forward, not starting with the answer and working backward.
2) Conservative reformers are understandably allergic to arguments about income inequality. The conservative project at its best has worked to raise the floor beneath the American middle class, not to lower the ceiling upon the middle class. But one of the lessons I think conservatives should take from the 2012 Romney defeat is that the increasing concentration of wealth in America has dangerous political and intellectual consequences. I’m not so worried that the oligarchs will pay for apologetics on their behalf. That’s politics as usual. I’m more concerned that so many people will identify themselves with the interests of oligarchy without being paid, without even being conscious that this is what they are doing. The whole immigration debate, for example, is premised on the assumption that the only interests that matter are the interests of the employers of labor.
3) Conservative reformers must not absent themselves from the environmental debate. Humanity’s impact on the climate - and how to address that impact - is our world’s largest long-term challenge. If conservatives refuse to acknowledge that challenge, they only guarantee that the challenge will be addressed in ways that ignore conservative insights and values.
4) Conservative reformers should make their peace with universal health coverage. It’s the law, and it won’t be repealed. Other countries have managed to control costs while covering everyone, and the US can too. A message of “protect Medicare, scrap Obamacare” reinforces the image of conservatism as nothing more than the class interest of the elderly.
5) I appreciate that conservative reformers must pay lip-service to shibboleths about Barack Obama being the worst president of all time, who won’t rest until he has snuffed out the remains of constitutional liberty, etc. etc. Dissent too much from party orthodoxy, and you find yourself outside the party altogether. Still … conservative reformers should admit, if only to themselves, the harm that has been done by the politics of total war over the past five years. Now Republicans are working themselves into a frenzy that will paralyze Congress for the next 18 months at least, and could well lead to an impeachment crisis. As it becomes clear that the IRS story is an agency scandal, not a White House scandal, conservative reformers need to be ready to do their part to apply the brakes and turn the steering wheel. There will be a Republican president again someday, and that president will need American political institutions to work. Republicans also lose as those institutions degenerate.

If you read those five prescriptions, I’m sure you’d agree that today’s Republicans are very, very far from accepting any of them. A positive governing philosophy? A focus on economic inequality? An environmental agenda? Acceptance of Obamacare? Acceptance of Obama and of his administration?

Just to take #4, a conservative movement whose current stronghold is a House GOP caucus that has voted 37 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act is just not going to “make [its] peace” with Obamacare, no matter how many times people like Frum point out that conservatives everywhere else on the planet are living with far more “socialistic” health care systems.

Right now the main debate within the conservative movement and the GOP is whether they need to do much of anything—other than what they’ve done before, more loudly and consistently—to return to power. I argued last week that Ross Douthat’s much more modest “conservative reform” agenda collides fatally with the Right’s exceptional self-identification with “job creators,” and with a core ideological commitment to a rigid “constitutional” governing philosophy. Frum’s intelligently wrought suggestions are, unfortunately, doomed to be rejected and ignored, and a GOP which actually considered them would soon be—in Erick Erickson’s words—“disrupted” by its own shock troops.

UPDATE: Greg Sargent conducts his own comparison of Frum’s checklist to the positions of GOP elected officials, and reaches a similar conclusion.

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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