No Longer the “Party of No”: Reform Conservatism Take Center Stage

In the late aughts Democrats made political hay by tagging Republicans with the label of the “Party of No.” In three short words they were able to caricaturize and denounce the entirety of conservative thought as simply being against progressive ideals.

This put Republicans in a bind. Should they embrace the label because, yes, they did happen to be against most governmental interventions? Or should they shun it, knowing that in a world filled with problems voters would expect something resembling solutions?

For a while the former strategy worked. In 2010 for instance it was good enough that Republicans were against Obamacare. But gradually, even though government has continued to fail spectacularly as an agent of change, the pitch lost some of its luster. The momentum of the midterms failed to carry through into the 2012 presidential race.

Fortunately, Republicans did not spend the intervening years licking their wounds. Instead, a group of conservative reformers began to emerge with a quasi-cohesive agenda that would alleviate the societal problems that persist in the face of liberal policy. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat—one of the foremost thinkers of the movement—explains the reformers’ two main theses:

  1. The core economic challenge facing the American experiment is not income inequality per se, but rather stratification and stagnation – weak mobility from the bottom of the income ladder and wage stagnation for the middle class. . .
  2. 2. The existing welfare-state institutions we’ve inherited from the New Deal and Great Society, however, often make these tasks harder rather than easier: Their exploding costs crowd out every other form of spending, require middle class tax increases and threaten to drag on economic growth. . .

Of course the range of ideas espoused by the reformers extends much more broadly as well, they have clear ideas on how to create a pro-growth tax code, but also one that strengthens families; how to reform health care, namely how to eliminate distortions that contribute to the rapid rise of cost; and how to improve education in ways that would make it more egalitarian, less expensive, and of better quality.

Liberals, understandably, have been dismissive of the movement. They wonder aloud whether a “conservative reform” movement truly exists independent of larger Republican consensus and why reformists choose to hew too close to orthodoxy rather than, say, accept a larger role for government.

Much of this criticism is easily dismissed. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes for National Review, “To complain that we do not share progressives’ budget priorities amounts to complaining that we are not progressives.” Or, as Douthat sums up the argument of yet another reformer, Reihan Salam: “’Conservative reform is conservative,’ which is part of why it (understandably) strikes many liberals as disappointing, counterproductive or woefully insufficient.”

Also present in the liberal critique of the movement is no doubt a sense of concern for their own intellectual malaise. Liberals, and even progressives despite the name, have not made much progress in the last several decades. After all, what can we say is their achievement?

The social safety net of the New Deal has not aged well. Its benefits flow largely to the affluent and yet its enormous cost squeezes out programs for the poor. Recent attempts at health care reform follow much the same script, creating an overly intricate scheme of subsidies and taxes that actually contribute to higher health care costs. And our K-12 schools are more expensive yet of no better quality than years ago and our higher education system still runs off a model that was largely present in the 1700s.

The limits of liberalism are evident in the economic headlines of the day. “The economy still lacks its former firepower,” writes Josh Boak for the Associated Press. “The decline in the ‘labor force participation rate’ is one of the most troubling trends of our time,” says the USA Today. And, “finding work – especially a dream job – remains tough for those just graduating,” writes Paul Wiseman for AP.

Are these really the best outcomes that we can hope for? Of course not. And that’s what conservative reformers hope to change.