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Is There Really A ‘Conservative Reform’ Movement In Policy?

Economy Memo Pad Politics

Is There Really A ‘Conservative Reform’ Movement In Policy?


A few years ago, Freddie DeBoer argued that the terms “left” and “liberal” in the political blogosphere were really more descriptive of argument style and political strategy rather than any actual ideological differences. I think there’s a similar issue at play in the wave of articles about conservatives seeking to reform the movement.

As 2013 rolls on, we are seeing more and more articles about conservative reformers. Ryan Cooper had a list of “reformish conservatives” at the Washington Monthly, and now Jonathan Chait has a great profile of Josh Barro at The Atlantic. I understand why these articles are written — they profile interesting conservative writers that people should read more. But I don’t think they actually make their point.

Here’s how Chait sets it up: “conservative reformists… [argue] that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change. Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years.”

So there are two elements. First, reformers think that the GOP is currently on the wrong track with its policies, and second, they believe there need to be more “middle-class-friendly solutions” in new policy. This is different from saying that reformers don’t argue that the economy is a giant Randian morality play, or that President Obama is a left-wing radical; it’s about specific policies.

Are either of these things true? I don’t see it. Or, I see it more on the marketing end than on the policy end. I’m going to keep specific individuals vague here and generalize, because the arguments are predicated on a general move rather than any idiosyncratic argument. Here’s what I take to be the current conservative policy consensus:

1. Social Security and Medicare should be privatized. The word “privatization” is a complicated one with a lot of meanings, but generally competition should come to Medicare and private accounts to Social Security. This is for budgeting reasons, but also ideological ones. As Yuval Levin wrote, “the vision that has dominated our political imagination for a century — the vision of the social-democratic welfare state — is drained and growing bankrupt.”

2. Everything that isn’t nailed to the floor should be block-granted to the states. From there, funding should be slowed, and private agents should be emphasized at all points. Welfare reform, but for everything (especially Medicaid).

3. The tax code is too progressive, and that was true even before the changes in the fiscal cliff. The number of brackets should be reduced, perhaps even to two. Taxes in general should be lower, with some base-broadening to balance it.

4. The way to deal with health care is to allow insurance purchases across state lines while supporting state-level pre-existing condition pools. Ending Obamacare by itself is smart policy, even if something doesn’t “replace” it. And if push comes to shove, universal coverage is not a necessary goal.

5. Inequality is largely a non-issue, manipulated by liberals to justify their programs. The rich work harder in a global market that rewards skills and superstars. The middle class is only stagnating if you ignore health care costs and the fact that you can consume better technology cheaper. The economy works far better for average people than liberals understand.

6. Global warming, to whatever extent it is happening, should not have a government response to try and reduce carbon. Market signals, technology, migration, and adapting are better and cheaper options for even the gloomiest predictions. Or, looking at it in a different way, growth will ultimately solve the problem of global warming, and so any government policy that hurts growth (which they all do) is the wrong option.

I don’t think I’m making a strawman here. (1-3 is directly from Paul Ryan.) So the question is: How many of the reformers disagree with any of those? This is the core of current policy, and I don’t know if any of the reformish crew even disagree with these statements, much less want to spend the energy challenging them.


  1. docb May 25, 2013

    Marketing ..they want to screw the people for the profit of the corporations and wealthy..Just like they have done since ronnie..reagan…dumb down the population and force cheap labor for higher profit margins..Nothing new or humane!

    1. 1standlastword May 27, 2013

      And it certainly doesn’t help that republican administrations have put wall street in control of the treasury and the Federal reserve. Greenspan, Paulson, and Bernake, found idiot Bush a pushover for monetary policies that are still killing Main street.
      David Stockman’ argument in The Great Deformation is cynically convincing.

      1. docb May 28, 2013

        Stockman is very good..so is Bruce Bartlett.

        1. 1standlastword May 29, 2013


  2. Fairplay4 May 25, 2013

    There is no reform movement in the GOP. Their goal is to preserve the old order, i.e., sustain the privilege of the rich and powerful. They want to restrict the working class and enhance big business by unfair means. The sad thing is that they succeed is using some of the very people they suppress to reach their objectives.

    1. William Mack May 25, 2013

      I have one example, I had a neighbor who was unemployed for at least two years, his wife was the only one working and they had two children, this neighbor, a non-high school graduate, constantly threw in my face his negativity about Pres. Barack Obama, and his health care plan. I had to educate this man about the fact that since his wife is the only one working, And she could not afford to cover her family with health insurance, he should be rooting for Pres. Barack Obama to succeed, but in fact many Republicans within his family had convinced him, that it is better to be at the mercy of the hospital, and the state, then to come up with a better financial plan to cover his family. After that conversation I never heard another complaint about Pres. Barack Obama.
      I know for a fact that every time I hear or read a negative post about Pres. Barack Obama, that it is coming from people that are so ignorant, the Republican GOP could sell them anything, Just look at Sarah Palin, she’s a pure example of the blind leading the blind.

      1. FredAppell May 25, 2013

        Kudos to you for explaining to your neighbor in such a way that it changed his heart. The toughest challenge that liberal policy makers face is ignorance and long held misconceptions. You have proven, even if with only one person that people can change when presented with sound logic.

      2. William Akers May 26, 2013

        I have a cousin who is a high school graduate & deacon in his Baptist church. For whatever reason he never entered the job market. My aunt asked my mother [a former state president of the ladies auxilary of the V.F.W.] for help. She used her influence & arranged for him to join the army & got him a desk job so he wouldn’t be sent to Iraq. He served 3 yrs. in El Paso, Tx. & then she arranged for him to get a Medical Discharge where he was able to get Vet. Disability; barely worked a day in his life. His medical is free, he gets the top bracket of Disability [enough to pay a mortgage & all his bills] & he had the nerve to tell me President Barach Obama is a socialist.. thats the T.P. mentality.

  3. nana4gj May 25, 2013

    First, they are not “Conservative”. There is nothing conservative about them. They are the most extreme radicals pushing the most extreme ideology in my many years of political awareness. The extreme ideology they impose has no beneficial end result in terms of human dignity, economic stability, legal statutes, personal freedoms, domestic/national security, civility and citizenship, health and well being, or in keeping this country “exceptional”. They are the biggest threat to this country and her people.

    We have lost hundreds of children, our future, to violence from guns and natural disasters. We must sacrifice the lives of our children and our people so that some can have unfettered access to any kind of gun for any purpose they desire. Our bridges are collapsing; our aged mass transport systems in select urban areas and our overall infrastructure, damaged from the extreme weather conditions that are now the norm, require us to hold our breath for funding to remove bodies from the rubble, much less to rebuild stronger to meet the norm.

    Everything we have done that could have a beneficial end result, they try to undo: repeal legislation that reins in financial greed and corruption, that enables access to healthcare with consumer protections, as if there is nothing else for them to work on. They want people to be more independent, yet, they keep them working as indentured servants on less than $10.00 an hour, deny them Medicaid because “they are too sick to benefit from health care”; call the unemployed dope addicts and lazy moochers, yet they refuse to believe that fixing the failing infrastructure across this nation is a wise investment in putting people back to work

    It is more important to them that they monitor the monitor the monthly menstrual periods of women and have us report our miscarriages to the police. It is their job, they believe, to be angry, obstructive, insulting, obnoxious, uncivil, and plain stupid and ignorant. It is their job to take the opposite position of anything that is proffered by their opponent or even anyone in their own Party, unless they are as stupid and ignorant as they are.

    We are really tired of hearing how horrible this President is. That accomplishes nothing. You cannot get any uglier with it anyway. It is not constructive, for if you really believed what you say, you would be compelled to find a way to work within the system to address the ills this country faces, instead of just obstructing progress. You would be making a name for yourselves as statesmen instead of as incompetent, ugly fools.

    Frankly, I’m fed up with them. The antics we hear and read about every day, on every issue, all day and all evening, is getting old and stale. I do not care about them. They need to be reminded that “it” is not all about them. It is about this country and her people. And if they dislike this country’s history and that history’s legacy so much, and disdain her people, they are in the wrong line of work. We do not need a government to war on our own country and on her people. We have enough of those who seek to do us harm.

    Somewhere, somehow, somebody left the gate open and all of these extremists who are insane and ill suited for public service washed in as trash washes about in a flood. Those who left that gate open now have the responsibility to clean it up and shut it tight again. We know who you are. You touted and congratulated yourselves enough over it.

    1. CrankyToo May 25, 2013

      Well put. Bravo!

      1. charleo1 May 25, 2013

        I will second that, Bravo! And raise you another!

        1. CrankyToo May 25, 2013

          I’ll call that bluff.

    2. charleo1 May 25, 2013

      As you said, they are not conservative! The term is a handy label, but
      not at all a correct description of the mistakes, walking the halls of
      Congress, masquerading as responsible, elected representatives.
      And, like you. I have not seen, since my political awareness, a more
      ominous threat to our security, our economy, or the Government itself.
      Judging by their policies, and their conclusion, that the end shall
      always justify the means. They would seem to be striving with every-
      thing in them, to be seeking failure.

    3. 1standlastword May 27, 2013

      Voted up!
      You articulated in great detail an excellent characterization of exactly who in the greater part the modern GOP is as a group of narrow minded mean spirited people who I would have said with none of the effort you put forth that the main problem with the GOP brand is that “they are simply all the WRONG people” Having them make laws for American people is like have the Taliban rule over us

    4. RobertCHastings May 28, 2013

      Girl, that was well done! Kudos to you!

  4. Mark Forsyth May 25, 2013

    The agenda of the gop was known long before the name Barack Obama or even bin-Laden.I just finished reading the definitions of conservative and conservativism.Thought I might do some quick remedial research.I’m quite sure that no one who is a regular here,needs me to cite the despicable republican record but I will toss out some examples such as putting people out of work and their homes[for profit].Promote legislation to disenfranchise voters.Take big cash contributions from polluters of our air,water,land,food, and the environment in general.Attempt to strip women of their right to choose what is best for themselves.The list of offenses is much too long.When considering the definitions I’ve just read,the only way these things qualify as conservative is because they have been going on so damn long.And why do they resist the needed change? FEAR.Mixed with hate and misery it is all they have to offer.They are a Goddamn rotten no good bunch of shit eating sons of bitches and it is past time to be rid of them!

    1. Ann Crownover May 25, 2013

      Yes, I think it is ironic that the party that preaches “smaller government” has no problem with inviting itself into big business, voting rights, wombs, etc. I think they resist change because of hate; in their minds they are always right, so they have little to fear.

      1. Mark Forsyth May 25, 2013

        There’s little doubt that they have more than enough hate to go around,but consider that hate is spawned by fear.Read and listen closer to the things they say in defense of their positions.They are always pushing the fear of something or somebody.If it is not the fear of not enough money then it is fear of not enough white people or not enough weapons etc.etc.They are impregnated by it it,submerged in it,and subverted by it.Fear is their primary motivator and their top shelf product.The problem is always something other than themselves.A perceptive person can see it pouring off of them.If they were capable of taking an honest look at themselves they would learn that they are the problem they should fear most.They are so sick of it that they want to spread it around.

      2. Dominick Vila May 26, 2013

        Bear in mind that the size of government grew at a rapid rate when Reagan was in office, and that it is down now.

  5. Dominick Vila May 25, 2013

    The only thing Republican members of Conress can be credited for is for saying no to everything that has been proposed to strengthen our economy, create jobs, and improve our standard of living. They opposed ACA, investment in infrastructure, filibustered the Veterans Jobs Act, opposed getting out of Afghanistan, opposed closing the Guantanamo prison camp, opposed raising the debt ceiling, and just about everything else proposed to date. In the end, the American people will judge their performance not by mistakes made but by the absence of ideas, vision and commitment to country.
    There is nothing wrong with having different opinions and values, but refusing to negotiate and compromise should never be an option. Disagreements have been part of our politics since we became a Union and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, when people of good will disagree but are willing to seek middle ground the end result is more often than not more effective legislation. The problem we are having now is that the lvel of partisanship is so intense that even the work compromise is interpreted as obscene and a sign of surrender.

  6. Allan Richardson May 25, 2013

    Give a man a gun, and he can rob a bank. Give a man a bank (or two … thousand) and he can rob the world. The Greedy Old Poots are stealing from the average American while convincing the average American that they will help him get back what the “others” have stolen. Voting for them is like giving your bank account to some Nigerian scam artist who sent you an email promising you a million dollars. To say nothing of giving them your MONEY! American workers are GIVING the corporations the rope with which they plan to HANG us. Don’t fall for it!

  7. William Mack May 25, 2013

    After reading that article about what the Republican GOP truly believes, I Am thoroughly convinced that the Republican party will not See the White House for at least 20 Possibly 30 years.
    The Republicans can start two wars spend trillions of dollars trying to prove to America and the world That they, the Republican Party does not know the value of a dollar. They don’t mind putting old ladies and old man out in the street And telling them to find another way to pay their
    medical bills, They don’t mind telling the American people that They will spend whatever They choose and how much They choose For There own agendas, But you, have to find your own way.
    The Republicans got America into this financial mess, But now they want to blame Pres. Barack Obama For how long America stays in this mess, The major sticking point with me is this, we did not rush into this financial crisis, why should we rush out of it Without a real fiscal financial plan.
    The real reason The Republican GOP wants Pres. Barack Obama to rush out of the financial crisis, the Republicans know that the world is in Financial trouble and billionaires need a place to secure their billions of dollars hiding in offshore banks (Ireland), the Euro is in a tailspins, China is in a building bubble waiting to burst, Billionaires are scared to death that they are going to lose everything. Where is the best place for a billionaire to hide there money, of course America. By lowering the corporate tax rate to 15%, dirty rats like Cisco, Apple and others can wallow in There billions of dollars Right down the street from there multimillion dollar mansions.

    1. Robert P. Robertson May 26, 2013

      Man, if you think this is something, you ought to see the documentary “Park Avenue” previewed on National Memo. You would say with absolute certainty that they will not see another Republicunt in the White House for the next 20-30 years.

  8. nana4gj May 25, 2013

    Their policies disqualify themselves because they are not apt for today’s world. They are old, inept for today’s world, throwbacks to bygone times, when inequality was valued, a time of the “haves and the have nots”; when people were less educated, less informed, less aware; when people dying from neglect in old age, without medical care, was the accepted norm, when we didn’t even have the level of medical care that we have today; when we did not rely on automobiles to move us from suburbs to inner city or even around the sprawling suburbs.

    Times are different today; needs are different; everything is different. Yet those who are so angry and so against anything that speaks of progress or future use the same old arguments that were used back in days of yore, when the country first began changing, responding to a society that was supposed to have fought it’s last war, possibly began with an ideology that sounds eerily similar to the one used today.

    Were “conservatives”, who are not really conservative, to have any validity in anything they espouse, we could never hear it to consider it because they shout so loud, so ugly, so angrily; are so rigid, uncomprimising, so critical of what and who differs, so offensive and insulting, we cannot hear them. And so, we reject them; we even fear them, because anyone who cops out of trying to make themselves more attractive and blending the value they believe they have into what others propose, with the tactics they use, are not to be trusted.

    When they have wasted so much time, energy, and resources just waging their own war; legislating the uterii of women; attempting to repeal a piece of legislation 37 times wasting millions of dollars on the effort, they are not to be believed.

  9. nana4gj May 25, 2013

    It’s difficult to even attempt to use rational logic to “understand Conservatives”, or to predict the long term viability of the Republican Party that ceded their experience, know-how, statesmanship to this once fringe group that now controls them. Having fed, clothed, and otherwise nurtured this beast, the GOP is being devoured by it. But, that’s their problem, it should not be ours. We have our own very real problems, some of them not of our own doing.

    Conservatives and Republicans have been operating on an emotional basis. Everything they put forth is based on emotion. We even spend press, air time, navel gazing on their future, what they have done wrong, how they need to change, as if that is the most important fall-out and cause of our country. No one promised them a Rose Garden, literally or figuratively. They, like the rest of us, have to earn one. It is not we who must belabor the needs of a once grand old party; it is they who must belabor the needs of a country they almost ruined, and seem intent upon finishing.

    Any political ideology that needs that much dissection in order to understand it beyond the screaming, yelling, insulting, emotionalism, and the paralysis that it causes, cannot be very worthwhile.

    When one can ferret out what they are saying amid all the noise, their ideology does not seem to fit today, 2013. When one then looks at what they have accomplished with that ideology, most sane people run from it like it’s a plague.

  10. Robert P. Robertson May 26, 2013

    the definition of “treason” in Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary reads: The betrayal of a trust: Betray; Perfidy; Treachery 2: the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government or the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or to personally injure the sovereign or his family. See: Sedition.
    Republicunt/neo-Confederate Tea Bags drape themselves in the America flag and declare in hyperbolic profundity the platitudes of patriotism. yet, when we sit and listen to what they are saying, they are talking against their government, denigrate their president and his family, are very anti-democracy, and resent the very foundations of civilization. they announce in tremolo oratory what freedom, democracy, and the pursuit of happiness is, but does everything in their power to deprive, disadvantage, and discriminate anybody else from achieving these rights. Their actions are what is described in Webster’s dictionary as “treason”. The very idea that the Republicunt/neo-Conservative Tea Bags in Congress is obstructing government progress and calling their president a “communist”, a “Muslim”, and a non-citizen of the United States is not only unAmerican, it is absolutely treasonous.
    Instead of working to help bring America above the economic mess it is in, pulling together in a united effort to move America forward, they would prefer to drag America into the mud, to destroy the country they are sworn to allegiance to in order to make sure that our president, their president, the leader of America fails. They would prefer to divide these “United States” than work to keep it united. That action is the very definition of treason. It is real “Americans” who must called them out, bring them to the floor, and make them explain their treacherous cowardice every time one of them opens their mouths against their government or their president.


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