My series on new developments and developing writers in conservatism continues. Here’s my PoMoCon talk with Tanner Greer, who’s writing a book on America since 2003 for Tyler Cowen, about old conservatism’s Trump-shock and new, Very Online Conservatism’s Great Awokening shock. Tanner has an NRO essay criticizing Reform Conservatism while agreeing with its reformist intentions and time-honored purposes. He argues that older conservatives worry about politics, whereas newer conservatives seem to worry about the very ground of politics. The previous assumptions about institutions are upended, down to the family, so it’s no longer a matter of how should we be doing things, but who even are we!
Imagine it’s January 2017, and the Republican presidential candidate has triumphed while the GOP retains its congressional majorities. Upon being sworn in, the new president governs in a thoroughly ReformiCon manner. (I put it this way because everyone knows that what a candidate says on the campaign trail often bears little resemblance to how he governs.)
What do you hope for? What would count, for you, as success after four or eight years of a president Reformicon administration?
In order to avoid tying this question to any particular candidate I take the lawnmower book as a reasonable indication of a ReformiCon agenda. For example:
In this campaign book Marco Rubio sets out his stall as the unapologetic Reformicon candidate. He writes clearly and with verve about his plans for tax, education, and entitlement reform, if somewhat less clearly about why he should be the one to execute them.
Being something of a Reformicon skeptic, however, I found it hard to get excited. There are the usual anecdotes about “Marge and Homer of Springfield” who have been done down by the system – or, at least, the parts of it he wants to change – and how his (or Mike Lee’s and his, or Paul Ryan’s and his, or Yuval Levin’s and his) policy prescriptions will make things all right again for them and the middle class. If you’ve read the lawnmower book you know the drill. If you’ve read much of Ricochet you also know the usual objections.
(Some of the anecdotes seem rather strange choices. Jennifer, in the first chapter, has failed to reach her American Dream despite going to college and getting a four-year degree in – public administration…)
I just listened to Peter Wehner’s excellent portrayal of Reform Conservatism in the latest Powerline podcast. I have no problems with the movement’s goal to reform public institutions and programs to limit their size and cost. But the more I listen, the more I couldn’t help feeling the Reformicons have one huge problem: they embraces the culture of government. Its culture is government. Basically, it shares the liberal ethos.
Look, I don’t want to sound too harsh. These wonks want to do good policy. I like Reformicons, their desire to get the market mechanism into programs, to make them smaller, more cost-effective. If I were President, I would hire these wonks to fix any troublesome programs I want fixed. But there is something askew about their penchant for government intervention, seemingly anywhere and everywhere.
Ronald Reagan famously said: Government is not the solution, government is the problem. Reagan stressed personal responsibility, the limited role of government—to those activities government can do well. There is the individual realm, there is the public realm. But these guys say: Government is here to help with your problems. It is the nature of the world today. Government has a moral duty to help. But we will use the conservative way to help you.
In the hyperbolically headlined “‘Reformocons’ Struggle To Define Their Movement As Something Better Than Capitulation To Liberalism,” Breitbart writer John Hayward takes issue with conservative reformers. The lengthy piece mostly keys off a Slate article written by Reihan Salam, and I will leave it to Salam to do a point-by-point rebuttal if he cares.
But it gives me a hook to clear up some confusion. In his Slate piece Salam writes, “Instead of defending the welfare state in its current form, reformocons look at the goals of programs like Social Security and Medicare and then try to find better, fairer, more cost-effective ways of achieving them.”
Jeb Bush is giving a big lunchtime speech at the Detroit Economic Club today. CNN reports that he’ll be pitching “reform conservatism,” a subject I’ve written a lot about. We’ll see what his version is. Now as it happens, The Wall Street Journal this morning has a piece from reporter Bob Davis on reform conservatism, focusing particularly on tax policy (though there is far more to it than that): “’Reformicons’ Put New Twist on Tax Debate — Young Conservatives Push GOP Presidential Candidates to Back Targeted Breaks, Not Just Broad-Based Tax-Rate Cuts.” Here is a quote from my AEI colleage Michael Strain: “For the past 10 years, our biggest issue was whether the top tax rate was 35% or 39.5%. I don’t care anymore.”
In short, conservative reformers place less emphasis on cutting the top marginal income tax rate as a top policy priority. Coincidentally, my new The Week column concerns that very subject. At least on the personal income tax side, my preference is for tax relief for parents – a human capital gains tax cut for the worker creators. But it’s a long stretch of the legs — a Kessel Run-length distance, in fact – between saying that (a) right now cut the top marginal personal income tax rate is not of maximum policy importance and (b) tax rates simply don’t matter. More from the WSJ piece:
Republican policymakers and strategists, most notably the “Reformicons,” have recently released numerous proposals for restructuring taxes. Many of the specifics may be sound and sensible. But the proposals are all a terrible mistake. My message to reformers is this: it’s the spending, stupid.
We live in an age of deficits. Any tax proposal will need to be revenue-neutral (and under static assumptions, because trust in economists is low). That means it will also be zero-sum: You can’t give one person a break without raising taxes for someone else. Good luck with that.
Paul Ryan is a smart and sincere man. Famously, he is one of the few people who understands the Federal budgeting process. (How profoundly disturbing is that?) He is a tireless proponent of changing the system from within, producing plans, budgets, and reform proposals that conform to the status quo while pushing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. His latest self-appointed task is to show how Catholic Social Teaching is consistent with the Reformicon-Republican vision of America.
A recent foray in this direction is his article for America, ‘Preferential Options.’ (Ryan had the good fortune to have his article published alongside one titled ‘Dignity for All‘, penned by a progressive regurgitating talking-points writing under Rep. Joe Kennedy III’s name; American Thinker has a review.) In it, Ryan outlines one of his recent proposals for reform of the federal safety net.