Are Republican Reformers Trying to Reform the Right Party?

The recent effort by a handful of Republican politicians to put forward plans to alleviate poverty and boost stagnant incomes, undoubtedly brought on by a Democratic messaging strategy increasingly centered on the subject of income inequality, has been enthusiastically welcomed by the so-called “reform conservatives” or “reformocons.” The reformocons are a diverse and diffuse group of conservative pundits and writers who not only argue that the GOP needs to replace (or at least supplement) its reflexive denunciations of the Obama Administration with a positive economic agenda aimed at providing greater economic security for the poor and middle class, but who have sketched out ambitious ideas of their own for how to accomplish those goals.

Chief among the would-be reformers are the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who celebrated the movement’s small successes at gaining traction in his latest Sunday column; National Review’s Reihan Salam and Ramesh Ponnuru; National Affairs editor Yuval Levin; center-right healthcare wonk James Capretta; and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Strain. In 2008, Douthat and Salam coauthored a manifesto for “Sam’s Club Republicanism” called Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, the main thesis of which was that the Republican Party would need to craft a domestic policy agenda more attuned to working class anxieties about job loss and declining wages if it wanted to remain competitive in future national elections. In their view, the GOP’s Bush-era economic platform remained stuck in the 1980’s, with lowering marginal tax rates for high-earners, reducing the regulatory burden on business, and balancing the federal budget (primarily if not solely through spending cuts) seen as timeless solutions just as well-suited to the problems of the mid-2000’s as to those of twenty or thirty years earlier.

Of all the specific issues discussed in Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam’s top priority is shoring up the two-parent family, which they consider vital to not only guaranteeing that children are raised in stable homes, but to lessening the extent to which the social safety net is called upon to care for the next generation. To that end, they advocate for an expansion of the child tax credit and a recognition of the fact that raising children is essentially an investment in society’s future that society should strive to encourage and support in whatever ways it can.

The pair also express qualified admiration for the Roosevelt-era New Deal, which they believe was successful in laying the groundwork for the greatest period of shared prosperity in American history, in part because of the New Dealers’ efforts to consciously design programs like Social Security in a way that incentivized marriage and parenthood. And while they agree that contemporary mores forbid us from revisiting some of the New Deal’s more explicitly sexist elements, they are nevertheless critical of modern liberalism for being “allergic to moralism in public policy,” and maintain that it is wholly legitimate for the government to design social programs in a way that privileges certain family structures over others.

The (relative) flowering of Republican policy entrepreneurship in recent weeks, from Marco Rubio’s speech on poverty to the publication of an essay by Michael Strain in National Affairs on why the Right ought to be taking far more seriously the problem of mass long-term unemployment – a piece hailed by David Frum as the “Ninety-Five Theses” of the nascent reform movement – has seemingly made reformocons like Douthat hopeful that their moment has arrived at last. Yet their ebullience has been met with skepticism in certain quarters. In response to a Times column by David Brooks about how “[t]he emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum,” Richard Yeselson penned a strident piece for The New Republic which proclaimed that the GOP base has little appetite for the kind of reforms being pushed by the Grand New Partiers:

The Tea Party (which Brooks never mentions, but which is clearly on his mind) is not some aberrant or exogenous issue for the GOP. It is, in fact, the base of the party, perhaps totaling more than 50 percent of its support… Republicans are, at best, ambivalent about social insurance and transfer payments. They oppose universal health insurance, food stamps, and unemployment benefits…

This is today’s ideologically and ethnically homogenous Republican Party, an institution that must care enough about Yuval Levin’s grand plans to actually convert them into law and policy. There is no evidence that state or national Republican politicians will do so… There are no major policy arguments with the GOP, only tactical disagreements like whether or not to leverage the renewal of the debt ceiling. This is pretty much the agenda supported from everybody from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader John Boehner to first-term legislators in Texas, North Dakota, and Mississippi…

Are [the GOP’s donors] any more likely than an Evangelical in the Deep South or a Tea Party libertarian in Arizona to support Michael R. Strain’s job proposal—which, among other things, includes worksharing, infrastructure investment and providing subsidies for workers who move where jobs are more plentiful—rather than their usual demands of low taxes and minimal regulation? Are the Koch brothers reading the National Interest and thinking they need to invest $100 million in passing the Strain plan? The Chamber of Commerce may be looking for smoother, less obviously extreme candidates next time around—but that is a cosmetic, not ideological, difference.

Regardless of how accurate Yeselson’s portrait might be, the reformers do indeed have their work cut out for them. Or do they? If their goal is to transform the Republican Party into a suitable political vehicle for the sort of ideas discussed at length in Grand New Party – tax reform targeted at working families rather than high-earners, near-universal catastrophic health coverage – then the task is certainly daunting. On a range of issues, they are faced with the challenge of not only persuading Republican office-holders or candidates to adopt their particular solutions to problems like widespread unemployment or rising healthcare costs, but to consider those problems urgent priorities in the first place. Douthat has insisted that the innovative conservatism championed by individuals like Utah Sen. Mike Lee is the most intellectually fertile of all the various strains of Republicanism circulating today, and that its future is bright. But that kind of conservatism also has serious liabilities that may limit its ability to turn “Sam’s Club Republicanism” into a reality.

On the other hand, if the goal of the reformocons is merely to see their ideas accepted and implemented regardless of who does the implementing, then their job is potentially much easier. In a recent issue of Commonweal, J. Peter Nixon argued that the “conservative alternatives to Obamacare” advocated by Douthat, Salam, Capretta, and others are not so much alternatives to Obamacare as they are slight modifications to its basic structure. Amending the Affordable Care Act’s minimum benefit requirements to allow insurers to sell plans that would cost consumers less upfront but offer less comprehensive benefits wouldn’t actually be such a terribly radical move. As Nixon sees it, it might be easier for those truly concerned about fixing the law’s structural defects to work on convincing the Democrats to do the fixing:

The irony is that for all these differences, Obamacare and the conservative reform plans have a lot in common. Both subsidize the purchase of private insurance as a means of expanding coverage, both seek to increase competition among health plans as a way of driving down costs, both want to prevent insurers from discriminating against the sick, and both try to make this economically viable by bringing more healthy people into the insurance pool.

One could certainly imagine changes to Obamacare that would address many of the concerns raised by Ponnuru, Douthat, et. al. The benefits package could be made less generous and more catastrophic options could be allowed. States could be given more flexibility in running their exchanges or managing Medicaid. The excise tax on high-cost employer-provided health plans could be raised, making plans less generous and consumers more cost-sensitive.

But that is hardly “repeal and replace.” Rather than being a radically different “conservative alternative” to Obamacare, what the reform conservatives are proposing is just a few steps to the right along the same continuum. While one can hardly expect the left to endorse it, the real problem for reform conservatives may be their friends on the right. For the GOP base, the struggle against Obamacare has become an apocalyptic battle between Freedom and Tyranny, not an opportunity for the kind of policy give-and-take the reform conservatives are offering.

There already appears to be latent bipartisan support for scrapping some of Obamacare’s most controversial elements, like the medical device tax or the employer mandate, so it’s not as if selling Democrats on the political upside of making some “conservative” changes to Obamacare would be an especially Herculean task. It seems as if at least some of the Democratic reluctance to relitigate aspects of the ACA has been motivated more by the political need to defend its legitimacy and general conceptual outline against sustained Republican attacks than by any particular affinity for every last detail of the law.

Healthcare is just one issue, but the same logic applies to others as well. The 2009 stimulus, signed into law barely a month after Barack Obama first took office, could no doubt have been designed and implemented in a more targeted way, and few deny that infrastructure projects can be a breeding ground for cronyism and rent-seeking. But if you are interested in using government power, be it in a restrained or more muscular fashion, to address the lingering unemployment crisis, would it be better to pitch your ideas to the party that considers that problem one of its top priorities, or the one that has moved on to other concerns?

The reformocons are justifiably interested in returning us to a time when real, meaty, center-right alternatives were offered up in response to liberal legislative proposals. The problem is that, as Paul Krugman has opined from the left, the key to restoring a healthy dialectical relationship between the two major parties may not be to focus on changing the tone of the conversation and on refining the intellectual quality of the debate in a hope that substantive policies will follow automatically from the fact that everyone is talking about serious ideas and being nicer to one another.

Rather, it may be to see to it that policies that will reinvigorate the economic fortunes of the middle class are put into place, even if one party has to do so by itself, and then watch as a new bipartisan consensus forms around those policies as it did in the years and decades following the New Deal (in many respects, this was the theory to which the Obama Administration seemed to subscribe early in the president’s first term). The view of someone like Krugman about what policies those should be obviously differs from the view of someone like Douthat or Salam, but the principle remains the same. Get your agenda enacted, get the great mass of the American people behind you, and then see if the other party is willing to engage you in a more productive way.

The counterintuitive bottom line here is that the reformers might have more luck building their Grand New Party within the Democratic Party. Of course, a natural rejoinder will be that the Democrats would be just as opposed to embracing the sociocultural priorities of conservatives as the Republicans would be to embracing the economic priorities of liberals – perhaps more so. I’m not sure this is true. Just as much of the opposition on the left to any tinkering with Obamacare is driven by fears that that tinkering will lead to wholesale sabotage, so too does it appear that liberal apprehension about “family friendly” policies is driven at least in part by a fear that they are simply disguises for anti-gay animus and the like. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, whose “New Conversation on Marriage” project I wrote about a while back, believes that liberals might be more willing to embrace a “pro-marriage” agenda in a world where same-sex marriage is legal and revanchist attempts to roll it back have largely faded away.

And indeed, there is clear evidence that this could be the case. Public Discourse featured an essay last week that discussed Barack Obama’s support for initiatives to combat fatherlessness, albeit as part of a case that such support is logically inconsistent with his endorsement of same-sex marriage. The most philosophically rigorous social conservatives will no doubt find Obama’s gay rights advocacy to be an insurmountable obstacle to taking seriously his apparent concern about the problem of fatherlessness, but what this anecdote actually reveals is that prominent Democrats, up to and including the most prominent Democrat of all, recognize that family breakdown is a real problem requiring real solutions. Since public opinion is clearly headed in the direction of greater acceptance of same-sex marriage, the day when Democrats are willing to embrace a Blankenhornian or even a Douthatian vision of how the levers of public policy can be used to promote marriage may be nearer than its conservative critics believe.

Douthat’s Sunday column explains how, after years of struggle, reform conservatism is finally ascendant in the Republican Party, but it never defends the tacit assumption that the Republican Party is where it should be struggling to ascend in the first place. Near the end of the piece, Douthat strikes a cautionary note:

The more likely solution for the G.O.P. has always required a two-step process: rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect. Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.

As I see it, Douthat underestimates precisely how formidable an obstacle that first threat – the “rejectionism” of the GOP base – really is.

The cover of Grand New Party features an endorsement from David Brooks declaring that the book offers a roadmap for “where the GOP should and is likely to head.” The second half of that statement seems like wishful thinking. If Hillary Clinton “may actually be unstoppable no matter what,” then maybe it’s time for the reformocons to broaden their search for a patron.

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