The following is the first of a three-part piece by Christie Watch on the debate over “reform conservatism” and the so-called “reformicons.” Part II will appear Thursday, July 17, and Part III on Friday, July 18.
Amid the tumultuous debate, in advance of 2016, between “Tea Party Republicans” and “establishment Republicans,” it’s fair to ask: What does either side believe? Generally speaking, it’s easy to categorize this or that potential 2016 challenger as belonging to the “Tea Party wing” or the “establishment,” with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio lumped among the Tea Partiers and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush firmly ensconced among the establishmentarians. But when it comes to policy and ideas, how different are they, really? Do they have any ideas? And if so, who shapes those ideas, beyond rote beliefs: low taxes, less regulation, small government? Which brings us to the latest buzz, namely, “reform conservatism.”
In 1999–2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush put himself forward as what he called a “compassionate conservative.” The term fooled a lot of people, including many independents and some liberals, who overlooked Bush’s Texas record, which focused on cutting regulations, enacting tort reform and tax cuts. Is today’s reform conservatism an updated version of compassionate conservatism? Or is it something else? Back in 2000, “compassionate conservatism” managed to mobilize a phalanx of neoconservative ideologues, who took up dozens of key posts in the Bush administration, under the leadership of Vice President Dick Cheney, resulting in both the war in Iraq and massive, unsustainable tax cuts. At the very least, as we shall see, the reform conservatives include quite a number of unrepentant neoconservatives among their ranks, and their thinktanks and their flagship publication, National Affairs, is lavishly funded by old-fashioned, Wall Street– and hedge fund–backed neocons and American Enterprise Institute–like conservative crusaders.
The current fuss over reform conservatives (“reformicons”) was kicked off on July 2 by a fairly credulous article in The New York Times by Sam Tanenhaus, titled “Can the G.O.P. Be the Party of Ideas?” The article leads with a story about a gathering of the Republican faithful at AEI, in which Eric Cantor—the soon-to-exit House majority leader, just defeated in his central Virginia primary—as the standard-bearer for the reformicons’ notion that the GOP has to recast its appeal with outreach to, as Cantor puts it (somewhat reminiscently of the walrus in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”) “the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month.”
The idea-generating folks behind Cantor’s newfound belief that the GOP has to broaden its appeal beyond Chamber of Commerce entrepreneurs and the Christian right to include the middle and working classes writ large include two reformicons highlighted in Tanenhaus’ story: Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and, especially, Yuval Levin of National Affairs. Says Tanenhaus: