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Liberals Should Take Reform Conservatives Seriously

Getty Images/T.J. Kirkpatrick

Thursday was a momentous day for reform conservatism as they unveiled a new, 121-page policy agenda titled "Room to Grow." But rather than evaluate its 10 chapters of proposals, some on the left instead have chosen to evaluate the reform wing's degree of influence (or lack thereof) in the Republican Party. It’s a missed opportunity for liberals to debate the merits of progressive policies and even, on some issues, to find an ally across the aisle.

In a piece Friday explaining his problem with reform conservatism, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait argued that reform conservatives are underestimating the challenges they face in gaining acceptance within the GOP. “I do think the Republican reformers can nudge their party to a better, or at least less terrible, place,” he writes. “But I don’t think they’re being very straight about it.” This followed his piece Thursday about the new agenda, in which he criticized Ramesh Ponnuru's proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit in context with the Ryan Budget, which calls for steep cuts to low-income programs like the EITC. But Chait doesn't interroaget Ponnuru's proposal itself.

Not that Chait is wrong in these two columns. The uphill battle facing reform conservatives is real. The Republican Party, pushed right by the Tea Party, has disavowed policies they used to favor, such as infrastructure spending. The conservative base’s commitment to lower taxes and spending cuts has been exacerbated by Republican politicians' refusal to accurately describe the policy tradeoffs in their proposals. The Republican Party is still committed to tax reform with two rates, at 10 and 25 percent, but as Dave Camp, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has discovered, it’s effectively impossible to do that without increasing the deficit. The Ryan Budget, meanwhile, makes drastic cuts to programs for low-income Americans while ignoring the true drivers of our long-term budget problems: health care costs and an aging population.

Being the opposition party, Republicans have not had to contemplate the consequences of these policies, if enacted. At the same time, they have convinced their base that an impossible policy platform is in fact possible. That's the challenge facing reform conservatives: to realign the party's agenda around what's realistically possible. Doing so creates an inherent tension, as it requires getting the attention of Republican policymakers while critiquing their policy platform. How do you publically argue that the Ryan Budget would hurt the poor while ensuring his office still takes your calls?

In striking this balance, reform conservatives are often hesitant to call out poor policy ideas, for fear of losing the ear of Republicans in power. For instance, in the new conservative reform agenda, Robert Stein argues, “Cutting marginal tax rates is not … an effective tool for delivering tax relief to the middle class. It does very little to lower their tax bills or improve their work incentives.” That’s good. Stein then proposes a tax plan that increases the child tax credit by capping the mortgage interest deduction and exemption for interest on municipal bonds. But, as the New York Times' Josh Barro explains, that cannot raise enough revenue to make the plan deficit-neutral. Stein won’t go as far as supporting higher taxes on the rich—which another reform conservative, Ross Douthat, notes on Twitter as a potential solution to Stein’s revenue shortfall.

Despite these challenges, liberals should take reform conservatives—and their ideas—seriously. For one, responding to the Ryan Budget is not difficult. But responding to valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit is more intellectually challenging. Many liberals are concerned that after eight years of Barack Obama and potentially eight more of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s agenda will grow stale. Without a contested primary, how will the party continue to improve and adapt? Democrats can start by evaluating their policies in comparison to those of reform conservatives.

Secondly, reform conservatives and liberals agree on some issues—not the size of government, but weakening copyright rules, expanding the EITC, eliminating occupational licensing regulations, and capping or eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction. You don’t have to believe that reform conservatives have traction in the Republican Party to support them in pursuit of those policies.

Maybe Chait is planning follow-up columns devoted to specific policies, but his first instinct was to critique the context of the agenda, not the ideas themselves. There is a lot in "Room to Grow"—both good and bad—and liberals should not dismiss it because reformers may have underestimated the gap between their ideas and the Republican Party’s current platform.