E.J. Dionne: 'Reform Conservatism Is Better Than the Conservatism We Have Had'

June 1st, 2014 1:09 PM

So-called reform conservatives such as David Frum, Michael Gerson, and Ramesh Ponnuru often get relatively favorable attention from liberal journalists -- relative, that is, to Tea Party types, which in turn reinforces the Tea Party's belief that the reformers aren't really conservatives.  

Two lefty pundits recently examined the state of reform conservatism. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne penned an article for the spring issue of the quarterly Democracy in which he analyzed the work of certain reformers and discussed how they might pull the Republican party toward the center. He also denounced the GOP's current message discipline in the service of its supposedly extremist agenda -- or, as Dionne put it, "the right’s version of political correctness."

Highlights from Dionne's piece (emphasis added):

-- "At its worst, blaming 'culture' for inequality can become an alibi for avoiding any confrontation with injustices within the economic system and a way to beat back proposals that challenge existing privileges. But the best of the reformers ([Ross] Douthat and [Reihan] Salam among them) are willing to...acknowledge that the economic struggles of the working class have made the task of forming and maintaining stable families more difficult."

-- "Even when [reform conservatives] 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. Nonetheless, [Yuval] Levin deserves credit for treading where many conservatives fear to go."

-- "The moral elevation of the 'job creators' over everyone else and the party’s hard opposition to government made it difficult for [Mitt] Romney to offer material benefits (other than tax cuts) to the working-class voters whose support he badly needed in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. Thus did the ideological positioning of the two parties put Romney at a disadvantage from the beginning."

-- "As some Republicans acknowledge privately, it will take a third presidential election loss in 2016 to open the space required for a thoroughgoing renovation on the right."

-- "Reform conservatism is better than the conservatism we have had."

-- "A true reform conservatism would move Republicans out of a comfort zone that sees deregulated markets and even more rewards for investors as elixirs for all economic ailments. Throwing more money at rich people is not a social policy."

-- "[Reform conservatives] can be part of the historic correction the conservative movement badly needs—or they can settle for being sophisticated enablers of more of the same."

Meanwhile, on May 23, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine wished reform conservatives lots of luck and suggested that they'll need it (emphasis added):

    However loopy, bigoted, incompetent, or detached from the realities of economic life the Republican Party may be, it is always just one recession away from regaining political power. It is therefore of the highest importance that sane, non-sociopathic people regain some influence within the party for when that day arrives...

    The challenge facing the conservative reformers is the yawning gap between their ambition — crafting a Republican platform designed to address real-world problems rather than redeem ideological fantasies —and the stark political reality of the Republican coalition. They are attempting to soothe a suspicious beast...

    ...I believe the most likely scenario for the party is a return to George W. Bush-ism, combining more lenient treatment of the poor with favorable tax and regulatory policies for the rich, and forgetting about deficits, which Republicans only care about when Democrats hold the White House...

    I do believe the reformers are massively understating the obstacles before them. There are reasons Republicans have fought so hard to claw back subsidies for the least fortunate. Active philosophical opposition to redistribution is one. A general detachment from the poor is another...I do think the Republican reformers can nudge their party to a better, or at least less terrible, place. But I don’t think they’re being very straight about it.