You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Republicans' Battle Plan for Reform Hasn't Changed—Only Its Chance of Winning Has

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If Mitt Romney had coasted into office on a Republican wave in 2012, I think he and Paul Ryan would've quickly set about trying to implement the social and economic policy platform they ran on, which, not coincidentally, looked an awful lot like the budgets Ryan had been writing and passing in Congress for two years running.

I'm not sure how successful they would have been. But I know they would have tried. Both because the whole point of Ryan's budget process was to build party consensus for, and the political mettle to pass, a radical agenda; and because Ryan said so.

"Do I want my budget to become the law?" Ryan asked at the annual Pete Peterson austerity summit last year. "Yeah. If Mitt and I won, we were planning on putting it together."

No mystery there. But I'd also wager that if Romney and Ryan had been successful, you wouldn't have heard a lot of second-guessing from reformocons, even though "reform conservatism" predates the 2012 campaign.

It seems pretty farfetched from the vantage point of today to assume that Republicans will have a chance—like the one that escaped them in 2012—to fully relitigate the New Deal consensus anytime soon. But if such an opportunity were to present itself in 2016 (in the form of a recession or foreign crisis), I think I'd be able to tell basically the same story: Republicans in Congress would be primed to pass something like the Ryan budget, they'd elect a president who, as anti-tax tribune Grover Norquist famously put it, had "enough working digits to handle a pen," and reformocons would basically be fine with it.

But that's because the reformocon agenda, such as it is, isn't best seen as a second alternative to the status quo—which overlaps to some degree with the Ryan budget—but as a series of proposed modifications to GOP's "unreformed" consensus governing vision.

Ross Douthat offers a few thoughts along the same lines, in response to what I detect as some confusion about Ryan and the reformocons' niches within the post-2012 conservative ecosystem.

Jonathan Chait and my colleague Danny Vinik both place too much emphasis, I think, on how all of these actors talk about policy, conservatism, the Obama status quo; and less on the more important question of whether anyone's ultimate goals or approaches have changed.

I think they pretty clearly haven't, even though many conservatives now talk about the road to reform in less apocalyptic terms than they once did. Ryan didn't fundamentally revise his budget. The reformocons didn't really alter their basic critique of Republicanism. To the extent that they've adapted, it's not to the reality that the Obama agenda didn't turn America into a billowing hellscape, but to the fact that the 2012 elections came and went and took with them almost all hope of fully repealing Obamacare and enacting a totalizing set of reforms in sweeping, Obama-like fashion.

The GOP's 2011 and 2012-era hysteria didn't disappear completely. But its legacy is confined to the hardline faction that shut down the government last year and continues to paralyze legislative politics. It also, as Chait notes, has transformed into an equally pitched rebellion against Obama's supposed lawlessness. I expect this legacy will be well represented in the next Republican presidential primary. It's just that the prospect of unified GOP control of government—which seemed so very within reach just two and a half years ago—has faded, and taken the strategic allure of doomsaying along with it.

If it returns, Republicans will be lying in wait to do what they had hoped to do over the past year and a half. And the reformocon version of those plans isn't much different. As Douthat noted at an American Enterprise Institute event in May, "[L]et’s say, a future Republican Congress and Republican Senate were to pass, in the first 100 days, a tax reform that I personally would favor, which would be some combination of Mike Lee’s proposals on the one hand and what Dave Camp put out on the other. And that’s a very broad sort of sketch, but basically a sort of conservative leaning tax reform that is more family friendly than, let’s say, what the Wall Street Journal would support. That would be a big deal. We haven’t had tax reform of any substantial kind in the U.S. in 30 years. And doing something like that, plus one or two of the other ideas … [a conservative] health care plan in your first 100 days. ... I think in terms of its scale, it would be substantial."

That's not the Ryan budget, but it's not an altogether different beast either. The battle plan hasn't changed and neither really have the terms of the intra-GOP debate, even if the whole thing is now marked by somewhat less rhetorical flourish.