Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Reform Conservatives

Ryan Cooper has a good piece discussing the small group of conservative writers who are attempting to reform the GOP. He is far more optimistic about their chances than Jonathan Chait was in his article last year about the destruction and exclusion of GOP moderates. My one disagreement with Cooper's piece is that he tries to draw too neat a parallel between current efforts and those of the New Democrat/DLC crowd in the late 1970s-early 1990s:
The Democratic Party’s equivalent period of soul searching played out quite differently. As early as the late 1970s, a major rethinking of traditional liberal ideas and policies about crime, welfare, entitlement programs, and much more was under way at magazines like the Washington Monthly and the New Republic—this at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. In 1984, only four years after Ronald Reagan’s first presidential win, reformist Democrats had their own popular primary candidate, Gary Hart. In 1985, the centrist-reform Democratic Leadership Council was founded. By 1988, two charter members of the DLC, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt, were running for president. By 1992, a former DLC chairman, Bill Clinton, won the office.
Compare this to Republicans. It’s two decades after Bill Clinton’s first presidential victory, and there is still no Republican equivalent of the DLC. During last year’s GOP primary, the only candidate who ran as a moderate reformer, Jon Huntsman, garnered almost no party support, quit in disgust, and started advocating for a third party. 
Its worth pointing out that "neoliberals" and the DLC were responding to, what they believed to be, real policy failures of the Great Society. The pushback was against actual measures in place, not just party orthodoxy. Why does this matter? Well, I think it really affects the GOP reformers chances of success. The Bush administration was no conservative equivalent of the second Johnson Administration. His domestic policies included an expansion of medicare and a federal education initiative. Conservatives in the GOP can, rightly, argue that the a real dismantling of the welfare state has never been tried. As a result, reformers are left arguing against a GOP agenda that is 1) mostly hypothetical, and 2) constantly shifts in response to the political winds and the proposals of Barack Obama. This leaves them a much greater challenge than that facing the DLC, who could point to actual policies in place, and argue that they needed to be reformed. As a result, it often feels like the reformers are stuck arguing about the message, rather than the substance. And this makes their actual criticism of the GOP (through no fault of their own) less coherent and unified.

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