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June 12, 2014 1:25 PM The Post-Cantor Reform Conservatives

By Ed Kilgore

One of the sub-themes occasionally emerging from the ocean of words about Eric Cantor’s defeat, and one I’ve stressed myself, is its implications for the “reform conservative” community of policy wonks and journalists to whom Cantor served as a political patron. At the American Conservative Daniel Larison minimizes the damage to that brand on grounds that Cantor was not himself any kind of “reform conservative:”

I’ll leave it to the reform conservatives to judge whether Cantor is one of their “patron saints,” but my impression is that his association with reform conservatism wasn’t very meaningful. It was just one of the many reinventions that he underwent over the last decade. Jason Zengerle counts more than six of these, but however many there have been the point is that Cantor seems to adopt and abandon these causes very easily and never fully embraces any of them….
There are several Republican politicians interested in the substance of reform conservatives’ proposals, but if one were making a list of these politicians I’m not sure that Cantor would have even been on it.

Larison even goes so far as to suggest reform conservatives might even welcome Cantor’s defeat on grounds that they have sought to make common cause with conservative “populists” of the sort that backed Dave Brat.

But in defending reform conservatives from association with Cantor, I fear Larison is confirming their weakness: they needed Cantor’s patronage precisely because they have no deep roots in either elite or rank-and-file Republicanism. Indeed, he admits as much in agreeing that “[i]tmay be the case that reform conservatism doesn’t have much of a constituency.”

This problem is the subject of a very different take on the future of reform conservatism by TNR’s Brian Beutler today:

Cantor, more than any other Republican leader, tried to change the scope of the party’s agenda, focus on the possible, and adopt a more conciliatory tone than GOP pols projected in Barack Obama’s first term. Republican primary voters were in no mood for that. It’s one of many reasons why Cantor’s career was just cut short.
If you’re a reform conservative (or conservative reformer or reformicon or whatever you want to call the loose network of intellectuals trying to transform the GOP’s policy agenda) this facet of the Cantor upset is extremely inconvenient. In addition to recognizing that Republicans need to do a better job speaking to middle-class concerns, Cantor was the most powerful official in the country who claimed to support the conservative reform movement goals. His own substantive offerings were fairly meager, but he at least paid lip service to deeper transformation. And his base didn’t care at all. His unexpected demise is a potent reminder that, whatever the Republican party is right now, it’s not something that places a tremendous value on developing an agenda with a broader reach.

Beutler goes on to note that the reform conservatives, presumably to protect their own right flanks, have been extraordinarily concerned with depicting themselves as paid-up members of both the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Add in the “populist” aspirations that Larison notes, and you’ve got a faction that seems to have lost its most important elite sponsor at the hands of its alleged grassroots allies. The simple truth is that “populist” conservatives out there in the actual country don’t appear to see the need for any “reform conservatism,” unless it’s the “reform conservatism” of Barry Goldwater circa 1964. Coming up with a policy agenda for the federal government that is consistent with conservative values is either a contradiction or a waste of time for people who think sweeping away the whole edifice of the New Deal and the Great Society along with the cultural revolution of the 1960s is what it means to be a “true conservative.”

Beutler thinks reform conservatives would better spend their time coming up with an agenda that has cross-over appeal to Democrats, presumably as groundwork for some limited bipartisan progress in a future gridlocked federal government where conservatives finally accept they don’t have the popular support to turn back the clock to 1964 or 1937. I doubt that sort of wilderness strategy will find many buyers, but he does make a good point that reform conservatives are more distant than ever from dominating their party either at the grassroots or via jesuitical influence with elites.

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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