According to Theodore Roosevelt biographer William Roscoe Thayer, the trenchant political observer Roscoe Conkling once said, “when Dr. Johnson told Boswell that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,’ he had not sounded the possibilities of ‘reform.'” It’s observably true, alas, that many who turn over the proverbial new leaf do so merely because the old one no longer serves to dazzle and deceive their fellow man.
Still, obvious cons such as penitential preacher Jimmy Swaggart notwithstanding, we accept some conversions may be sincere, while holding our wallet close. So recent talk of a “reform” wave of conservatism caught our interest, and we duly looked in. Readers who believe in the upward progress of humankind, prepare to have your hopes crushed again.Recently moderate-liberal writer E. J. Dionne reviewed some of the conservative reform variants (and introduced us to the unpleasant word Reformicons) in The Atlantic. (Word count: 7,688.) Dionne noted that “the reformist impulse blossomed in the final years of the Bush presidency, when many on the right and within the Republican Party came to see it as a failure” — that is, after years of whooping him up, they noticed when his poll numbers started plummeting that Bush was not really a conservative. “Early efforts” at reform, Dionne dryly observed, “were buried under the Tea Party insurgency,” but have since resurfaced.
Despite his good manners, some of the reform concepts Dionne discussed will strike our regular readers as both familiar and ridiculous. For example, Dionne cited the reformers’ “concern over the state of the family” and suggested this time they’re sincere about it, and have moved beyond such cheap tricks as anti-gay-marriage campaigns and are instead focused on “forming and maintaining stable families.” This is reminiscent of Charles Murray’s 2012 Bell Curve follow-up, Coming Apart, in which the conservative thinker bade his comrades strengthen the American family by nagging working-class people to stop having babies out of wedlock, and got rightbloggers to briefly switch from gay-bashing to straight-bashing.
As described by Dionne, the reformers’ other solutions didn’t sound particularly new, either. They wanted to transfer more power from the federal government to the states, presumably so that Republicans could claim government benefits as their own achievement rather than wicked D.C.’s, as Senator Mitch McConnell recently did with the Obamacare-enabled Kentucky Medicaid expansion; they wanted “healthcare portability,” the go-to alternative of all Obamacare repealers; they wanted, praise Reagan, more tax cuts, etc.
Among Dionne’s citations was “A Conservative Vision of Government” by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson and former Bush advisor Peter Wehner, which recently appeared in National Affairs. (Word count: 6,251.) This essay began with a long, oddly non-specific attack on Obama, whom Gerson and Wehner claimed “leveraged” the 2008 financial crisis “to pursue longstanding goals consistent with his liberal ideology.” In other words, he “never let an opportunity go to waste,” as rightbloggers are fond of saying, and used the crash as an excuse to realize the Liberal Agenda, which can’t be good. The authors also made reference to “The Life of Julia,” “federal power grabs,” etc.
Since this sounds like standard-issue conservative yak, why reform? Because, Gerson and Wehner said, conservatives “have offered voters an oppositional view of government that, while perhaps stoking worry and resentment, is insufficient to build public trust in the prospect of a conservative government.” In other words, people have stopped listening to them.
So the new deal was that conservatives have indulged too much in “rhetorical zeal and indiscipline” said Gerson and Wehner — though “given the provocations of the last five years,” that was understandable. They begged their Tea Party brethren to understand that the Constitution they so revered was not the Articles of Confederation, but a blueprint for a “strong if bounded central government.”
And what was wrong with Obama’s use of this strong if bounded central government? The problem was “the left’s powerful desire to manage and manipulate those realms of life that, in our country, have generally been left within the purview of the family, civil society, and local community,” said Gerson and Wehner.
In case readers found this less than coherent, Gerson and Wehner coughed up an example: Obamacare. While Obamacare was all “centralization and heavy regulation,” and the unreformed conservatives wanted “government stripped of public obligations when it comes to the health of citizens” and would just smash it to bits, reform conservatives would roll up their sleeves and deliver “an alternative health-care plan that doesn’t centralize all power in Washington and that keeps costs down, solves the problem of insuring those with pre-existing conditions, and reduces the number of uninsured” — which sounds pretty much like Obamacare, except with no central authority, so we suppose it would be the ideal conservative alternative to Obamacare in that it would be doomed to collapse.
Missing from the essay: Any mention of climate change, race, or the Veterans’ Administration which Gerson’s and Wehner’s comrades have spent the past two weeks pretending to care passionately about. Neither did they talk about the Second Amendment, and abortion was only mentioned in passing. Clearly a big part of reform involves trying to hush-hush the policies normal people don’t dig, and hoping the movement’s lunatic fringe, who love those policies, don’t notice.
Gerson and Wehner evangelized their ideas elsewhere. Gerson mentioned in a syndicated column that “trends of globalization and technological innovation” were making it hard for citizens to make a living; then, having acknowledged this basic economic reality and done his bit for reform, shifted to something conservatives would be more comfortable with: “Americans are forced to adjust to these disorienting changes just as supportive social institutions — two-parent families, communities that provide mentors and models — are collapsing.” So, back to yelling at sluts and wasters! Charles Murray will be pleased.
Gerson also told readers that Liberalism is Through. “Reform conservatism is promising precisely because progressivism has ceased to be,” he claimed — the progs were practicing “a progressivism that [Walter] Mondale would find familiar.” Haw haw, Mondale! You remember Walter Mon– hey, why isn’t anyone under 50 laughing? At Commentary, Peter Wehner agreed: “Reactionary liberalism is intellectually exhausted and politically vulnerable,” he decreed. “There is therefore an opening for conservatism to offer a different way of thinking about government…”
So, from the Gerson-Wehner perspective, reform is sort of like the compassionate conservatism of Gerson’s and Wehner’s old boss George W., and let’s see you come up with something better, plus liberals suck. Jeb in ’16!
The fullest flower of the reform movement so far is an ebook called Room to Grow put out by the American Enterprise Institute — a reliable vendor of vintage conservatism, but hell, if reform’s what the punters want, who better to distribute it than guys who know how to sell? — and something called the Young Guns Network, a nonprofit which hilariously claims it “will operate independently of any officeholder, candidate or political party,” and is lavishly funded by rightwing moneybags Sheldon Adelson and run by that noted visionary, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
The book, composed by several authors including Peter Wehner (word count: 50,000+), is online, as is Natalie Scholl‘s easy-reading summary, “22 conservative reforms to help America’s middle class.” Among Scholl’s examples: “Lower barriers that now keep workers from potential jobs. One example is to roll back oppressive licensing requirements.” This is catnip for liberals who want to show solidarity with libertarians, for some reason — preeminently Matthew Yglesias, who wonders why leftists won’t let people cut his hair without a license. While wildcat barbering won’t by itself effect the necessary revolution, perhaps more relaxed licensing standards in fields such as medicine — a la Rand Paul’s DIY ophthalmological certification — will over time convince Americans that the occasional sepsis fatality is more than outweighed by low, low prices and Freedom.
Room to Grow offered to “lower the risk associated with hiring long-term unemployed workers” for businesses,” said Scholl. How? “By temporarily lowering the minimum wage,” she cheerily explained. As Room to Grow co-author Michael R. Strain put it, that exorbitant $7.25 required by the fascist Feds — never mind the $10.10 Obama proposes; that’s just crazy — subjects employers to a “risk on long-term unemployed workers,” who “are already seen as quite risky compared to applicants who are coming from other jobs or have been employed more recently.”
Under Reform, workers would be eligible for “a temporary subsidy through an enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit or a wage subsidy,” Strain added. How much the worker would actually get is left open — considering that reform conservatives also promised to lower his minimum wage, it might not be very much (this “will create winners and losers,” Strain admitted; “for example, it is likely that some firms would hire a long-term unemployed worker at a $4 minimum wage…”). But the important thing is the employer would pay him less; plus, this would add a burden on the government that would help destroy it, thus advancing Freedom.
As to education, RTG co-author Frederick M. Hess said the federal government “can play a crucial role in making it easier for local families, educators, officials, and entrepreneurs to [reform schools].” If you guessed that means vouchers, give yourself a gold star — though be aware they’re now calling it “‘course choice‘ programs”: “The state contributes a portion of per pupil funding to an individual account,” proposed Hess, “enabling families to decide how to allocate those dollars among approved educational expenditures… it allows parents to use a proportional fraction of school funding to access specialized providers in lieu of the usual offerings.”
Again, the money would come from the government, further enabling the bathtub-drowning of same on which modern conservatism relies, while creating money-making markets for such entrepreneurs/con-artists as Michelle Rhee. (Also, Hess warned, “school choice can create some losers as well as some winners.”)
As with any conservative scheme, there was room in Reform for the Family Values people. RTG co-author Carrie Lukas denounced liberal “government-administered paid leave program[s]” because they would “disrupt the employment contracts of the majority of working Americans who currently have leave benefits” and, as a result of this contract-disruption, “companies and employees would also be less likely to seek mutually beneficial arrangements, such as part-time and work-from-home options, during periods of leave.” Asking for things just makes employers angry, ladies.
In fact, this might get so bad that “given that women, particularly of child-bearing age, are more likely to take extended medical leave,” added Lukas, “employers may be reluctant to consider them for senior positions with significant responsibilities.” Wow, a conservative admitting there’s such a thing as workplace discrimination against women — they must want reform really bad.
Lukas further denounced liberal programs “increasing funding for Head Start and Early Start, and bolstering other government support for child-care centers” because “as the price of institutional child care goes down for the user, the value of the service provided by the stay-at-home parent or grandparent also goes down” — and how’s a kid going to get to know his parents and grandparents unless poverty forces him to?
Co-author W. Bradford Wilcox wept over “the retreat from marriage in Middle America” and, after several pages of marriage-makes-you-rich talk, proposed an end to the “marriage penalty” — not just in tax policy, but also in “means-tested public benefits” such as Medicaid and food stamps, which he claimed “end up penalizing marriage, albeit often unintentionally” by perversely rewarding the unmarried with enough to eat. To fix this, Wilcox proposed that wedded couples on public assistance “receive a refundable tax credit for the amount of money that they lose by marrying.” However, as we are not made of money, “this credit could be limited to the first five years of marriage to reduce its public cost.”
Also Wilcox proposed ending the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, “which serves families where both parents work outside of the home, thereby discriminating against families with a stay-at-home parent,” and transferring that credit to parents who are raising their children the way W. Bradford Wilcox would prefer.
In the closing, Ramesh Ponnuru furthered the cause by praising the Tea Party because it had “resisted the modern tendency to treat the rights protections spelled out in the Constitution’s amendments” — for example, the ones that gave women the vote and black people freedom — “rather than the structural provisions in its main body, as the most important element of our constitutional system.” But, he italicized, “This constitutionalism should be political rather than legal” — which we take to mean, after parsing paragraphs of his yak, that we can’t yet count on SCOTUS to advance the full conservative agenda and must do so by passing as much legislation as possible that “involves a less restrictive form of reasoning than legal constitutionalism does” — that is, has the smell of Washington gift-shop fake parchment and protects the rich, as the Founders intended.
While Ponnuru did mention the Second Amendment, briefly, neither he nor anyone else in Room to Grow directly addressed race, climate change, abortion, or the VA.
Reaction among the brethren has been mixed. Libertarian Arnold Kling thought that the platform might lead to mere “legislative gesturing. A member of the House or Senate can introduce one of these proposals in isolation, issue a press release, and say ‘Look at me. I’m offering a solution for X.'” Kling seemed to think this was unintentional.
At the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti said that while under the platform “both the GOP and the country would enjoy a better future,” he found some things missing. For example, “it is the issue of immigration that presents the greatest challenge to the prospects of reform conservatism” — which rather leaves Room to Grow out, as it contains no mention of immigration (and Wehner and Garson’s manifesto mentions it only briefly, saying the nation’s “immigration system” was “badly misaligned with obvious economic needs and desires”).
Also, Continetti said, “I do not think you can have a winning pro-middle-class conservatism that runs away from the hot-button social issues of abortion, marriage, guns, welfare, and affirmative action” — and, as we have seen, though the reformers tackle welfare from an oblique “reform” angle, they’re avoiding those “hot-button” issues like the plague, probably because they don’t want to spook the sheeple.
It’s a quandary, but the reformers can count on a couple of factors to keep their cause afloat: First, they have copy-hungry conservative columnists, who will happily fill their off-season pages with their guff (as the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin did with three count ’em three columns featuring Wehner, Ponnuru, and Yuval Levin on the subject). Secondly, there are liberal columnists who will attack the reformers and thus provoke a defensive reaction that keeps the dream alive.
For instance, NewsBusters’ Tom Johnson complained that Dionne’s piece “denounced the GOP’s current message discipline in the service of its supposedly extremist agenda,” and that “Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wished reform conservatives lots of luck and suggested that they’ll need it.” The nerve!
When Salon’s Matt Bruenig understandably declared the whole thing bullshit (“Meet the new conservatives, same as the old conservatives”), and cited as an example a tax cut proposed by Tea Party Senator Mike Lee that seemed designed to help the well-off rather than the working poor, the American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis tsked, “Why don’t progressives want to cut taxes for middle-class families?” then called in RTG co-author Bob Stein to call Bruenig’s argument “idiotic” and to add, “Yes, middle-class workers making $70,000 per year who have twins would get a huge tax cut (under Lee’s bill)… But a worker making $10,000 to 15,000 that has twins would still be covered by the EIC, which is even more generous than the new child credit.” That’s reform, baby! “It really seems like the idea of helping middle-class parents by letting them keep more of their own money is abhorrent to Bruenig,” harrumphed Pethokoukis.
From his National Review perch, reformer Reihan Salam Scott Winship complained about Michael Hiltzik‘s “unhinged critique” in the Los Angeles Times that Winship had mischaracterized SSI as a scam gamed by crafty Poors. Winship rejoined that SSI children’s claims had gone up after a court ruling broadened their eligibility for it, and while the research Hitltzik cited points to “the high denial rate of child applications nationally as evidence that few children are on SSI illegitimately,” Winship said, “…That is a weak argument for the obvious reason that it says nothing about how many should have been denied, which might be a higher number still.” The column also contained several sneers against “feeling good about one’s pure-heartedness,” being “assured of your own righteousness, like Hiltzik,” etc.
See? Discourse! And so, in a tiny corner of the public conversation, the manifestos fly, and word gets around that conservatives are serious and Republicans are The Party of Ideas. Meanwhile actual election campaigns are underway, and generating headlines such as “Nasty Senate race digs deeper in the mud” (referring to the Mississippi contest in which a blogger was jailed for surveilling Thad Cochran’s wife), “Green billionaire prepares to attack ‘anti-science’ Republicans,” “Republican Chairman Uses Photo Of Dem Governor For Twitter Campaign,” “GOP sues feds for right to raise unlimited campaign cash,” etc. And we haven’t even seen our first demon sheep ad yet. Well, possibly reform will be somebody’s October Surprise. We’d be surprised, certainly.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 1, 2014