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:
Together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine—orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street— and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.
As Tanenhaus notes, since that AEI gathering the reformicons have been praised and/or taken seriously by The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and Politico. But should they be? Or are they, to use some much-overused metaphors, old wine in new bottles or Wall Street pigs wearing lipstick?
Not all reformicons agree with one another, of course, and no doubt they’re all struggling with the idea of how to rebuild the badly tarnished Republican (and “conservative”) brand, now that the country has skewed ethnically diverse, younger, less religious and more populated with empowered women. But the fact is that reform conservatism is really just a repackaging of old-fashioned GOP ideas masquerading as somehow being in sympathy with the plight of struggling workers and single moms. For example, writing in National Affairs, in a piece called “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” Daniel DiSalvo lavishly praises Christie’s attempt to eviscerate teachers and other public-sector unions, without much seeming regard for the working-class and single-mom members of those unions. In the piece, DiSalvo writes:
The firestorm that these proposals have sparked demonstrates the political clout of state-workers’ unions. … Yet confront them policymakers must. As Christie said about the duel with the [New Jersey Education Association[, “If we don’t win this fight, there’s no other fight left.” Melodramatic as this may sound, for many states, it is simply reality.
Well. If that’s reform conservatism, not too many workers and single moms will be buying into it.
So who’s backing the reformicons? As one might expect, National Affairs was set up by the same billionaires and conservative foundations who’ve been funding conservative think tanks and media outlets for decades in an effort to shape popular thinking and economic policies, and the current team includes financiers and wheeler-dealers such as Roger Hertog, Paul Singer and Bruce Kovner. And as expected, the movement is run by the intellectual heirs of the key “original” neocons including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, the folks who founded National Affairs’s godfather magazine, The Public Interest. Today, the wealthy backers of the reformicons are single-mindedly promoting their iconic belief in the need to eliminate government programs and encourage the spread of unfettered free enterprise. They founded National Affairs for the same reason that The Public Interest was founded in 1965, by Irving Kristol and his collaborators, namely, to counter progressive thinking. In the earlier period it had led to the Great Society and its social programs and in 2009, when National Affairs was launched, there was strong support for more government regulation of Wall Street and healthcare reform.
To be continued. Part II will appear tomorrow.