Looking for Votes, Rightbloggers Explore “Conservative Reform,” Find Pretty Much Conservatism


Last week rightbloggers remained occupied with the recent D.C. scandals, which some of them expect to result in the President’s impeachment; they even have a March on Washington and a shady poll to give them hope. We expect they will result in some sort of impeachment, if only of certain people’s judgment, and look forward to rejoining the subject at that time.

At the same time, some of the loftier rightbloggers, not as confident that a Joe Biden Administration will be the tonic their cause requires, were talking about how to “reform” the politically moribund conservative movement. Longtime readers will be unsurprised to learn that in their case “reform” meant either nothing or “even worse.”

This reform was discussed in a number of prestige outlets, either by liberals (Ed Kilgore, Washington Monthly; Jonathan Chait, New York magazine; Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, et alia) and in a somewhat derisive manner, or by conservatives (Avik Roy, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Reihan Salam of National Review, et alia) in a more hopeful one.

Everyone had his own diagnosis of the movement’s ills. At Real Clear Politics, Ben Domenech blamed them on that convenient scapegoat, the Bush Administration, whose “policy team never believed in limited government anyway,” he claimed, and this, along with the very-briefly-mentioned financial crisis, “led to dissatisfaction in the limited government ranks, and the failure of Republican competency.”

But it wasn’t a total loss, said Domenech, as the ensuing “organic outpouring of disgust and distrust toward government institutions… led directly to the rise of the Tea Party.” Ah yes, the Tea Party — along with “Whip My Hair” the big hit of 2010. Domenech said it “altered the makeup of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill” and “had an enormous impact on the governorships of major states as well.” But two years later Obama won the election, as did a number of other Democrats.

So what’s the answer? Populism, said Domenech. Which is what? “Tax cuts, tax reform, and spending cuts,” said Domenech. Okay, this isn’t getting us anywhere.

Big conservative thinker Ross Douthat of the New York Times entered the lists, first arguing that while “there are important issues where the G.O.P. has retreated into a kind of policy bunker,” there were areas such as immigration where “there’s a much livelier debate about immigration policy within the Republican Party right now than there is within the Democratic Party.” In fact, on “social issues… it’s the Democratic Party that’s become notably more ideologically conformist in the Obama era — more likely to pick fights over religious liberty, more absolutist on abortion, and lately more inclined to make support for gay marriage a party-wide litmus test.” So who’s got the big tent now, libs (if not nearly enough voters to fill it)?

In a later column Douthat listed the names in his “reformist camp.” His primary examples are worth looking up:

“Veterans of Bush-era ‘compassionate conservatism’ like Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson…” We might call Wehner and Gerson, both of whom served in the Bush Administration, RINOs — reformers in name only. Back in 2010, true, Wehner did come out against the proposed overturn of birthright citizenship, and he’s no fan of Sarah Palin, though mainly because her “style is quite different from, and at times antithetical to, that of Ronald Reagan, who had a charm and winsomeness about him.” But Wehner steadfastly defends Bush’s conservative creed (“On defense spending, Bush asked for and received the largest increase since the Reagan years… Bush’s record, based on objective conservative yardsticks, stacks up quite well against Reagan’s”), and in 2009 he got mad at George F. Will from jumping off the War on Terror bandwagon (“America needs spirited realists, not defeatists”),

Gerson is mainly known as the Godly Guy in the Bush speechwriting team, since which tenure he has kept body and soul together by penning defenses of the former President (and of Republicans caught in sex scandals), as well as analyses of the current President (e.g., “Obama the Snob“).

Recently, Wehner and Gerson teamed up on a comeback script for their party. Their recommendations included tax reform (“reasonable tax rates and a rational tax code”), an end to the “unsustainable path of health-oriented entitlement spending,” “responsible exploitation” of oil and gas, “welfare reform,” etc.

Readers might justly wonder how this differs from Republicanism as currently expressed, but Gerson and Wehner did throw a couple of curves: for example, they said Republicans should “acknowledge climate disruption” — though they hastened to add this “need hardly lead one to embrace Al Gore’s policy agenda.” In fact, this pro-scientism should mainly be realized by “back[ing] an entrepreneurial approach to technical and scientific investment,” they said, which would differ from “huge subsidies to favored companies such as Solyndra” in ways that were, alas, left unexplained, perhaps because they were really covered in the tax cuts section.

Wehner’s and Gerson’s biggest pitch: “Republicans could begin by becoming visible and persistent critics of corporate welfare… ‘Ending corporate welfare as we know it’: For a pro-market party, this should be a rich vein to mine.” This would be realized by “supporting the breakup of the big banks.”

That’s an interesting idea, and lately much repeated, but mainly by think-tank inmates and columnists — for example, James Pethokoukis, in an essay called “The GOP edges a bit closer toward breaking up the big banks,” which cited the Financial Times, a “senior policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities,” and “an AEI adjunct scholar.”

Missing from most of these writings: actual Republican politicians (with the fascinating exception of Senator David Vitter). Or rather, Republicans were missing who actively supported the measure; their names were still sometimes dragged in. During the late Presidential campaign, for example, Bloomberg’s Simon Johnson announced that “the big opportunity for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and for conservatives more broadly is to choose this moment to pivot against big banks,” though he admitted that “the most serious obstacle is that Ryan’s (and Romney’s) big donors include major players from the financial sector…” Around the same time, Pethokoukis told readers, with what we like to take as surprise, “up until recently, my sources tell me, Team Romney was completely unaware that there was a ‘break up the big banks’ (BUBB) movement on the right.”

Ah, what might have been. Insiders don’t expect a wave of GOP politicos (or Democratic ones either) to join Bernie Sanders anytime soon in calling for a bank breakup — not if the banks can help it, anyway, and they can. But talk about a bank breakup — well, that might work; it comports with the “ruling class” gab rightbloggers like to run when they’re feeling proletarian (or think their listeners are), and like all talk is famously cheap (which fits nicely with the Republicans’ budget austerity strategy!).

Back to Douthat:

“…combative moderates like David Frum and Josh Barro, moderate moderates like my colleague David Brooks…” The first two are certainly combative: Frum has denounced the harsh tone and dumbed-down content of conservative radio and TV talkers (“‘Morning Joe’ host Joe Scarborough pressed [Frum] to ‘name names,’ which Frum skirted around, but he said there were ‘too many'”), which has won him some enemies on the nut fringe, i.e., mainstream rightbloggers (“bid for an invitation to all the right cocktail parties,” “No doubt he thinks he will get invited… to some Beltway cocktail parties“) and even got him bounced from the American Enterprise Institute. And Barro’s so contentious that he’s been treated to a couple of high-profiles by liberal pals Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein, and even participated in a Tumblr-style Ask Me Anything hosted by Andrew Sullivan.

But reformers? Barro, author of “Sorry, Ramesh Ponnuru, Conservatism is Doomed,” is so far off the reservation that the tribal councils are unlikely to hear, much less listen to him. He may eventually have a chance, though, if he adopts Frum’s role: That of professional, perennial reformer. Frum’s been working it awhile. In early 2008 — after the disastrous 2006 midterms but before the financial crisis — Frum offered his party reform in a book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again. As described by the publisher, Frum’s plan included “a conservative commitment to making private-sector health insurance available to every American — Lower taxes on savings and investment financed by higher taxes on energy and pollution — Federal policies to encourage larger families…” Also: “A renewed commitment to expand and rebuild the armed forces of the United States-to crush terrorism-and get ready for the coming challenge from China…” And look — with minor exceptions, the GOP has come around to this radical plan — proving that they’re able to change! That’s some good reformin’.

As to David Brooks, it is true that he has on occasion enraged the nutters (Michelle Malkin, has spoken of a “David Brooks/Kathleen Parker/Arianna Huffington/Daily Kos intellectual complex”; also, he’s said to be “just like the corrupt politicians who care more about ‘after parties’ and cocktail parties“). But Brooks is observably less interested in reforming the right than in reforming Barack Obama, whom he inevitable counsels to be more conservative. In one recent example, Brooks mused, “I don’t think it’s in Obama’s interest to be the liberal Reagan,” because shaping the course of American policy for 30 years as Reagan did, only for the left, merely “locks us into the same debate framework we’ve been stuck in since 1980, which has produced so much gridlock,” and nobody wants that, right?

Instead, said Brooks, “My dream Obama would abandon the big government versus small government argument,” and guess how he’d do that: “He would build on the means-testing Medicare idea that [rightwing columnist] Yuval Levin described recently in The Times. Older people with higher lifetime earnings would have fewer benefits, and they wouldn’t kick in until age 70.” Obama must be kicking himself that he didn’t think of it first!

Douthat’s inclusion of “‘crunchy con’ localists like The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher” suggests that he was going through some sort of press agent’s list for padding: While Dreher is indeed an unusual character, his attitudes toward people of different races (“People — black, white, brown, rich, middle-class, poor, Christian, secular, etc. — naturally want to be around people like themselves. Why is that such a bad thing?”) and sexualities (“what are the rest of us supposed to think about gay male culture, and the degree to which it self-defines according to behavior that most people rightly find repulsive?”) are probably not something with which the vote-hungry movement will wish to be identified.

Douthat is probably on surer ground with his inclusion of “free-market populists like the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney” and “pragmatic libertarians like The Daily Beast’s Megan McArdle and her husband, Reason’s Peter Suderman” — for, as we have observed more than once, libertarianism is basically a niche brand of conservatism: attractive to upscale consumers who want all the rapacious capitalism with less of the religious-fundamentalist aftertaste.

And unlike the hacks and weirdos heretofore mentioned, these avatars are obliged to be inventive, sometimes in unexpected ways, to try and catch casual rightwing readers off-guard so that they might be transitioned from some-kind-of-libertarian-because-bootstraps to hardcore granny-starvers.

McArdle, for example, recently wrote in defense of fracking — not on boring old-style conservative what-do-you-want-money-or-potable-water grounds, but because it would stick it to those OPEC bastards. The free market beats petro-oligarchs — wasn’t that clever? Also, why do you think immigrants are rioting in Sweden? Unemployment? Disrespect by natives? No, says McArdle, it’s “a very welcoming immigration policy, and of course, an extremely generous welfare state” — or, if those things didn’t cause the riots, they didn’t stop them either (“If those things don’t work — if you get riots anyway — then something in Swedish policy may need a rethink”) and are therefore intellectually suspect.

Carney’s free-market populist columns are, admittedly, bipartisan — in recent columns he has attacked with equally vigor the statism of such important Republicans as Bob Dole and Buck McKeon, and of such important Democrats as Obama, Obama, Andrew Cuomo, Obama, the Democratic Senate, Obama, etc. If that doesn’t prove Democrats are more likely to work the system when in power than Republicans, what doesn’t? To show his range, Carney also on occasion tackles broader philosophical questions, such as “What does Paul Krugman think he gains from his rudeness?

Not for libertarians the mushy MOR route; while moderates, combative or otherwise, reach for the center in search of votes, libertarians expect voters to travel to Galt’s Gulch and seek their leadership. For example, after moderate Olympia Snowe retired in 2012, Carney mocked “cries that the GOP has been hijacked by conservative extremists” issuing from “conservatives who struggle every day to make conservatism more acceptable in the cocktail party circuit.” (Like David Brooks and David Frum!) For one thing, said Carney, moderates aren’t as moderate as they pretend — in fact, they “are as guilty as anyone of being intolerant when faced with conflicts within the GOP.” Also, back in the day these so-called moderates often sided with the RINO Bush Administration on the Iraq War and TARP, while real conservatives were marching in the streets with Cindy Sheehan to protest the war and calling for the banks to be broken up (Aha! Knew that’d come in handy).

Carney instead prefers conservatives who are as free-market populist as himself — like “true libertarian hero” Jim DeMint; “DeMint is pro-life,” Carney wrote; “So is Ron Paul, who explains that the most basic function of government is to protect the vulnerable from violence.” In case you were wondering, this is how the libertarian brand might subsume the conservative brand without losing the fundamentalists; in the new order, the feminists will be pro-life, and the gays will be encouraged to embrace the people who hate them, not for of any sissy Jesus reasons but because something something free market populism.

(For more libertarian abortion laughs, see Jordan Bloom’s roundup of a Reason magazine forum on the subject. Sample: “At P.A.U.L.Fest in Tampa last year I watched Walter Block — no natural rights slouch, him — give a speech on his theory of a woman’s right to evict a fetus but not kill it, citing competing rights to autonomy and life… until the invention of artificial wombs it’s entirely theoretical. ” Come on in, ladies, the free-market populism’s fine!)

Suderman thinks his side’s as good as got this power struggle wrapped up: “Indeed, if there is an upstart reform movement in the Republican party that actually seems to be gaining traction at the moment,” he wrote, “it’s the one that draws more from the libertarian side of the right…” At the Washington Examiner, Philip Klein posited a “conservative/libertarian intellectual movement.” Sure, the two teams have differences — while “many conservatives believe that there should be a basic social safety net, but they think it’s gotten too big, is poorly designed and undermines families,” those who are more libertarian “believe that in an ideal world, the social safety net wouldn’t be considered a proper function of government, especially the federal government.” In other words it’s work-or-starve vs. work-or-be-chronically-malnourished. You can see how crucial the distinction is.

Nonetheless, Klein said, “oftentimes, these groups end up in the same places – for instance, backing Social Security personal accounts, school choice, Medicare premium support, block granting Medicaid, and so on.” Amazing how that works.

And that seems to be the formula: A little reform talk, and a lot of the same old same old. Plus scandal! In all of the venues in which these great minds work, the sidebars are full of stories about the IRS and Benghazi (the AP having been demoted to something to tease liberal reporters about, and over which to demand Eric Holder’s resignation). And Douthat’s reform crew are on it, too. Wehner’s recent posts at Commentary include “Liberals Are Now Shocked, Shocked at Obama’s Culture of Intimidation,” “The Obama Scandals and Republicans,” and “Holder Should Resign, but Obama Is the Problem.” Among Gerson’s Post newer columns: “Eric Holder, giving Justice a bad name,” and “Government’s heavy hand felt in IRS, AP scandals.”

At the New York Times you can read David Brooks saying things like, “can I just say that I’m amazed that this I.R.S. story is bigger news than the Justice Department’s assault on The Associated Press and its reporters?” “Yes, What Happened at the IRS is a Scandal,” headlines McArdle. “Benghazi. The IRS targeting the Tea Party. Feds snooping on the Associated Press,” writes free-market populist Timothy Carney. “These dizzying controversies around the Obama administration all carry the same lesson: Watch what you say.”

Oh well, looks like we were able to avoid that tiresome topic for most of one week, anyway. Call it our reform movement. Next week, unless something blows up: Impeachmania — like Watergate Summer, only globally-warmed-over!

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 2, 2013

Archive Highlights