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May 22, 2014 2:30 PM Reformish Conservatives Watch Their Backs

By Ed Kilgore

As a news-cycle blogger, I’m going to have to wait until the Memorial Day Weekend to give any serious attention to the new 121-page “policy manifesto” released today by conservative “reform” thinkers (the hardy band Ryan Cooper described in the May/June issue of Washington Monthly as “reformish conservatives”) on a wide range of domestic issues (not including “divisive” items like immigration policy, of course).

Media accounts are treating the manifesto as something of a rescue mission to a Republican Party so addicted to pure obstruction and scandal-mongering, and so hostile to any positive role for government, that it has the policy chops of a hammerhead shark. And the authors are feeding that perception. Here’s an excerpt from Jonathan Martin’s piece in the New York Times on the effort:

“We have to do more than ‘Stand athwart history, yelling stop,’ ” said Pete Wehner, a conservative scholar, referring to William F. Buckley Jr.’s vision for National Review, the conservative magazine he founded.
“Sometimes you have to do that and then try to bend history in a different direction,” said Mr. Wehner, one of the contributors to the manifesto.
A group of right-leaning writers and policy analysts, calling themselves “reform conservatives,” have been all but pleading with Republican leaders since the 2012 presidential election to move from the Reagan-era’s small government bromides and a mere opposition to liberalism to address voters’ everyday challenges.
But there has been little appetite for embracing such an expansive agenda among Republicans, many of whom see more benefits in their confrontations with Mr. Obama over issues like the attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“Building a post-Obama conservatism is more important than still trying to beat Obama,” Ramesh Ponnuru, a conservative writer and the author of one of the book’s essays, said, explaining his frustration.

Interestingly enough, though, when you actually go to the website of the YG network (I’m guessing that stands for “Young Guns,” Eric Cantor’s brand) to gaze at Room To Grow, the book version of the manifesto, the first thing you see is this quote from the renowned lefty-baiter Jonah Goldberg:

You constantly hear about how conservatives have no ideas. The best thing about this book is you can slap the people who say such things with it. A close second: They can read it to discover how wrong they are.

That tells you a lot about the political fears of these “reformers.” A tome intended to convince their big dumb party to be smarter is marketed to its audience as an insult to liberals and a confirmation that conservatives have been brainy all along. Guess that’s the sweetener to help make the castor oil of positive governing ideas go down a bit more easily.

I have to say, whatever you think of the late Democratic Leadership Council and its efforts to reposition Democrats closer to “the center,” they didn’t sugar-coat their policies as simply blunt weapons with which to bash the opposing party. That tells you something about the relative levels of tolerance for dissent in the Democratic Party then and the Republican Party now.

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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