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Reform Conservatives Have No Choice But to Move Further Left

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The wonderful thing about an election as peculiar and opaque as the one Eric Cantor just lost is that anyone with any agenda can project onto it whatever meaning suits that agenda best. If you oppose immigration reform, then immigration reform did Cantor in. If you support immigration reform, then his lack of conviction was fatal. And so on. But it hasn't escaped my notice that after the 2012 election, Cantor, more than any other Republican leader, tried to change the scope of the party's agenda, focus on the possible, and adopt a more conciliatory tone than GOP pols projected in Barack Obama's first term. Republican primary voters were in no mood for that. It's one of many reasons why Cantor's career was just cut short. 

If you're a reform conservative (or conservative reformer or reformicon or whatever you want to call the loose network of intellectuals trying to transform the GOP's policy agenda) this facet of the Cantor upset is extremely inconvenient. In addition to recognizing that Republicans need to do a better job speaking to middle-class concerns, Cantor was the most powerful official in the country who claimed to support the conservative reform movement goals. His own substantive offerings were fairly meager, but he at least paid lip service to deeper transformation. And his base didn't care at all. His unexpected demise is a potent reminder that, whatever the Republican party is right now, it's not something that places a tremendous value on developing an agenda with a broader reach. And it reraises questions reformers themselves must tire of answering—about whether their ideas are a significant enough departure from current dogma to rescue their party.

Reform conservatives get particularly prickly when liberals criticize their proposals for being insufficiently liberal.

"To complain that we do not share progressives’ budget priorities amounts to complaining that we are not progressives," observed Ramesh Ponnuru, in response to a critique of the reformicons' latest policy manifesto.

Ross Douthat explained last year that, "As Salam says, 'conservative reform is conservative,' which is part of why it (understandably) strikes many liberals as disappointing, counterproductive or woefully insufficient."

All quite right. And to the extent that liberals criticizing the reform agenda are engaged in wishful thinking or sophisticated trolling, I completely understand. They are wise to avoid falling for the same trick that ensnared liberals into conceding and conceding and conceding substantive ground to conservative health care reformers for decades, until 2009, when those reformers finally yanked away the football altogether.

But I don't think that's what this particular line of liberal criticism is actually meant to accomplish. To the contrary, I think liberals—battle-scarred and looking in from the outside—are actually more clear eyed about the challenges facing the conservative reform agenda than the reformicons themselves. We don't return to this particular lament out of stubbornness but because, as a matter of near-mathematical certainty, the reform agenda must move left to ever be viable. 

The reformers want theirs to be a debate within the conservative family, and that's their business. But what that implies about the agenda they're proffering is that they believe Republicans will ultimately implement it on their own, in much the same way Democrats implemented the Obama agenda with almost no support from Republicans.

I believe this is practically impossible, particularly in the wake of Cantor's defeat.

For the reform agenda to take hold, it needs to first be fully fleshed out, then embraced by Republican party leaders, and not rejected by the reactionary right. Once those hurdles are cleared, Republicans need to win complete control of the government, with either a large Senate majority or the determination to avoid or eliminate the filibuster. They then need to pass and implement it in a way that garners sufficient public approval (or tepid enough disapproval) to endure in a conservative fashion in perpetuity. Simple!

Assuming the agenda is intended to address current GOP policy deficiencies, with respect to the challenges unique to this moment in America (i.e. that it's a 2016 agenda), I think they will fail at step one, but stand almost no chance of reaching step three.

The history here deserves longer treatment, but part of the reason Obama's first two years in office were so productive (aside from huge Congressional majorities) is that he benefited prior to his election from several years worth of foundation-laying and consensus-building by center-left policy wonks working in exile. Not every Democrat in Congress or every liberal activist or every big-dollar donor was thrilled with the consensus, obviously, but its extent was impressive nonetheless. Nearly all of the 2008 Democratic primary contenders, and particularly the big three (Obama, Clinton, and Edwards) ran on remarkably similar policy platforms, Obama's decision to eschew the individual mandate notwithstanding.

With no offense intended to the reformicons, they are way, way behind, with respect to both details and consensus, and they just lost a powerful emissary. To the extent that Republicans have been lying in wait to implement an agenda when they take control of Congress, it is the decidedly non-reformist agenda of the Paul Ryan budget, which could very well become more austere and punitive as a consequence of Cantor's defeat, and Ryan's expected departure for the House Ways and Means chairmanship. 

But let's assume the reformers play catchup—that nearly every Republican presidential contender runs on a much more fleshed out version of Room to Grow, and Ted Cruz doesn't screw them over by promising absurd tax cuts and huge reductions to federal income support programs. Step two is to win an election, and win big. Perhaps they will. But the predictable fundamentals of the next presidential election don't favor Republicans. A bunch of blue-state conservatives who coasted into office in 2010 will be up for re-election. And, ceteris paribus, Democrats will retain their structural presidential-year advantages. A war or a scandal or an economic shock could alter these dynamics, but Republicans would be silly not to worry about them.

If Republicans do sweep in 2016, their next challenge would be to execute. Anyone who covered Capitol Hill in 2009 and 2010 understands how painful that process would be, and all the more so because the reform agenda has been intentionally tailored as a Republican-only negotiation. As Yuval Levin wrote recently, "it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right."

Since we're already assuming the reformers somehow manage to created a partisan consensus comparable to the one Obama enjoyed in 2009, it follows that key elements of the agenda would surely pass. But some would inevitably fail, as some of Obama's best laid plans did. Particularly ones that imply partisan votes to dramatically reduce levels of support or institute the kinds of reforms Republicans have recently been much more inclined to back in blueprint than in concrete.

"Reforming Medicare so that it no longer attempts to set prices throughout the medical sector is a way to make American health care less expensive and more efficient, but it is also a step toward the modest federal role envisioned by the constitutional design," Ponnuru writes in Room to Grow. This is a roundabout way of describing the kinds of privatization proposals Ryan has included in each of his budgets, and acknowledging that they each serve as a step toward greater devolution of the federal safety net. Consider me somewhat-though-not-entirely skeptical that Republicans would do anything like this on a partisan basis.

And consider me further skeptical that fiscal proposals to consolidate existing anti-poverty programs and modify others would survive unamended in perpetuity, never to be enhanced by dreaded tax and spend liberals at any point in the future. All of which assumes, of course, that conservative hardliners won't scuttle the entire effort if its terms drift toward the center of the GOP conference.

What we have then are highly optimistic scenarios in which less-austere, less-radical elements of the agenda make it on to the books, leaving the liberal welfare state the reforms are intended to replace largely in tact; or in which Republicans replace liberal welfare programs with cash transfers that, if inadequate, would be subject to augmentation by future liberal majorities.

Needless to say, this all strikes me as incredibly implausible, and strategically self-defeating. Particularly given the likelihood that we'll be dealing with divided government and a reactionary caucus for quite some time. It's precisely the far-fetched nature of the existing project that makes liberals suspect it would be easier for reformers to generate cross-over appeal—making certain proposals more generous, without abandoning the premise that the government's existing bureaucratic state should be overhauled—than it will ever be to bring nearly everyone in their party around.