Can 'Reformicons' Save the Republican Party?


New York Times

Cover of the July 6, 2014, New York Times Magazine

The conservative reformers are about to have their moment—or so it would appear, if you're a reader of some publications predominantly read by liberals. A small band of thoughtful conservatives has been saying, for some time, that if the Republican party is going to survive—and, more specifically, win a presidential election in the next decade or two—it has to change. It has to get serious about policy again, grapple with contemporary economic and social realities that simple appeals to free markets and small government don't address, and find a way to attract voters from outside the demographic of old white people.

This weekend, the "reformicons," as E.J. Dionne dubbed them in a recent essay in Democracy, were the subject of a cover article by Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Magazine. (If you want to learn who they are, read Tanenhaus' piece; if you want to learn about their ideas, read Dionne's.) The natural comparison of this group is to the moderate Democrats, a number of whom organized around the Democratic Leadership Council, which in many ways took over the Democratic party in the early 1990s when one of their number, Bill Clinton, was elected president. On Saturday (in a separate article) the Times asked whether this moment for the GOP is like that moment for Democrats, the time when after a couple of big losses the party found a way to transform itself, cast off tired old ways, and take back the White House. It's an interesting historical comparison, but the ways that it fails show just how daunting is the challenge facing the reformicons.

The reformicons' ideas are still in the process of development, and while they're serious people trying earnestly to grapple with policy, it isn't easy to describe what they're proposing without a litany of specifics, other than something like "a conservatism for Main Street, not Wall Street," which doesn't cover a whole lot of ground and, one could argue, isn't particularly accurate. But if they're going to persuade not only the public but the Republicans politicians they'll need as allies, they're going to have to turn a policy project into a political project.

And that's where the problems present themselves. With all due respect to the Democrats who spent years laying a foundation of policy ideas up until the early 90s, it probably all would have been for naught if the most talented politician in a generation hadn't come along to carry those ideas to the White House. And who is the reformicons' Bill Clinton? Who's the spectacularly skilled and ideologically transformative Republican politician who can give their ideas the political rocket fuel they need to achieve the escape velocity necessary to leave the think tanks and wonky magazines and make it to actual implementation?

If you can think of anyone, you should let them know, because none of the dozen or so Republican officeholders currently considering a 2016 presidential run fits the bill. Who's it going to be? Ted Cruz? Bobby Jindal? Ron Paul? Rick Perry? Paul Ryan? Please.

Another key difference between today's GOP and the Democratic party of the late 80s and early 90s is that the latter was moribund while the former is still in a headlong rush to the ideological fringe. And the Republicans' very success in the House—in 2012 more people voted for Democratic representatives, but Republicans retain a 35-seat advantage—makes a move to the center far less likely. Because of the GOP's dominance in strongly conservative areas, the politicians moving up through the pipeline are likely to have made their way by appealing to the right. And the Tea Party will play a key role in the next presidential primary campaign, keeping candidates tethered to the right. It isn't impossible for someone with a different kind of agenda to get the party's nomination, but like Mitt Romney, by the time they do they will have spent months prostrating themselves before the party's most conservative elements, making a shift back to the center exceedingly awkward.

The reformicons argue that they aren't really advocating a shift to the center; their agenda is in a few ways more liberal and in other ways more radically conservative than today's standard version of conservatism. But the force they're inevitably pushing against is the Tea Party and its revanchist outlook on American politics. Any program that even smells like compromise or a rejection of the most extreme version of conservatism will be anathema to the them. That means that any politician who champions the reformicon agenda is going to have to fight against the party's base conservatives, a fight few are willing to take up.

There are some intriguing things in the developing reformicon outlook, particularly their acknowledgement that free markets can sometimes produce less than perfect outcomes that work against other things conservatives believe in, like strong families. But as E.J. Dionne writes, "Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market's shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market's priorities and are thus much smaller than the problem they're addressing." That's a challenge for any project like this one: If you don't challenge your side's ideological fundamentals, you may not be offering much that's compelling and new; but question them too much and you'll alienate the allies you need. Threading that needle can leave you with something like George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism"—an alteration to the packaging with only the smallest change in policy, and something with no lasting impact once its chief advocate leaves the scene.

The response of most conservatives to Bush's talk of compassionate conservatism was, "Sure, whatever." They knew it didn't mean much in practice, and if it helped them win the White House, they weren't going to object, even if it implied that regular conservatism was cruel. But the reformicons are proposing a more serious reimagining of conservatism. If that's going to succeed, it will need charismatic advocates and a political strategy to overcome the opposition it will generate within the GOP. The reformicons may find those things eventually, but they don't have them yet.

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