‘Reformocons’ Struggle to Define Their Movement As Something Better Than Capitulation To Liberalism

It must be galling to the newborn “Reformocon” movement that the biggest thing that’s yet happened to them–the primary reason any significant number of conservatives outside their little movement is discussing them–is that Rush Limbaugh strongly criticized them on the air.

In fairness, any splinter movement that defines itself by opposition to its intellectual progenitors can hope for nothing better than to take some fire from the big guns of the ideology it’s breaking off from. That’s one reason the Tea Party, for example, became a big deal, whereas what the insipid, manufactured “Coffee Party” liberals tried to cobble together in response did not. It was too obvious that the “Coffee Party” was an instrument of the Democrat Party, while the Tea Party had serious problems with the way Republicans did business. (You can tell how serious those problems were by the amount of effort the GOP Establishment invested in either squashing or co-opting the Tea Party, which continually defies pronouncements that it has been crushed or assimilated.)

The Reformocons can happily claim they’ve arrived because Limbaugh called them out. Until that happened, most of the attention they received consisted of cooing from paternal liberals, who rocked the Reformocon cradle gently, tickled their adorable little chins, and pronounced themselves delighted to have a group of “sane and reasonable” conservatives who conceded that the debate over the size of government was over, and Big Government won forever, or at least until it goes bankrupt and comes crashing down in flames. That’s obviously not the sort of nurturing a splinter faction of conservatives needs if it intends to be taken seriously.

It’s telling that the Reformocons seem unwilling to quote what Limbaugh said about them, or engage him directly. When Reihan Salam, a self-described co-founder of Reformoconism, mentions Limbaugh at Slate (!) he doesn’t link to the transcript of Rush’s remarks or quote the radio giant’s words; he links to a National Review post by Ramesh Ponnuru complaining that Limbaugh went too hard on him.

Allow me to provide that link to Limbaugh’s transcript archive, and his remarks on Reformoconism, which he delivered after quoting from the Wall Street Journal’s description of the new micro-ideology as “a group of young conservatives making inroads among Republican presidential candidates by arguing the party’s traditional reliance on broad-based tax cuts – GOP orthodoxy for a generation – isn’t enough to cure middle-class woes.” Said Limbaugh:

Now, at the root of this, folks, is a belief that — and these young conservatives, the Wall Street Journal says they are conservatives and call them Reformicons, there is a belief, and you may know this, there is a philosophy now within certain elements even of conservative media in Washington who believe that the whole argument over smaller government and limited government has been lost. Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard, was one of the first I remember to suggest that we had better get with it and understand the American people like their government, and they want a big government. They just want it administered better. They just want it administered smarter. But the idea of limited government, reduced government, smaller government, that is a campaign loser now. This is the evolving strategy or theory within even some strains of conservative media.

It’s basically a capitulation. They believe that the American people have decided they want government in their lives and they want a big government in their lives. They just want the government to do things smarter. If there are gonna be benefits doled out by the government, forget giving benefits to people that don’t work, give benefits to people that do.  Do you agree with that? I’m asking you. Do you agree that that is how Republicans ought to approach voters with the assumption that they have now grown accustomed to and accept the idea of a big government?

(Incidentally, Salam prefers “Reformocon” over “Reformicon,” with a funny aside about how the latter spelling makes them sound like a new faction of the warring Transformers robots, and I would agree with that choice of spelling. I’m not sure they’re a big enough deal to qualify for a capital “R” at the beginning yet, but in the spirit of the Big Government generosity they venerate, I’ve decided to give it to them anyway.)

Limbaugh continued in that vein for some time, arguing that Reformocons view Big Government as a fait accompli that evolved despite the desires of the American people, but now it’s so firmly entrenched that there’s no getting rid of it – we can only hope to manage it more efficiently. Rush was a bit suspicious of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s involvement with the group, following his stunning primary defeat by Tea Party small government advocate Dave Brat. “Did these guys miss the midterm elections, I’m wondering?” Limbaugh concluded, warning that the Reformocons were an attempt to rescue the losing ideology from beneath that Republican tsunami and redefine the Party as even more Big Government-friendly than it already is.

Ponnuru strongly objected to this portrayal (more to what the Wall Street Journal said about the Reformocon movement than Limbaugh’s reading of the WSJ article), insisting that Reformorcons are defined primarily by their preference for middle-class-friendly tax cuts, such as cutting payroll taxes and relieving the burden on small-business entrepreneurship, than bringing top marginal rates down. He also professed himself interested in health-care and education reforms that would dramatically reduce the size of government, which raises the question of just how distinct “Reformocons” could possibly become as a subset of conservatism. Have they got anything more to offer than warning conservatives away from the “tax cuts for the rich!” demagoguery liberals love to batter them with?

Salam offers a somewhat more comprehensive Reformocon vision at Slate:

So what do the reformocons believe, exactly? Are they the GOP’s answer to the New Democrats, a moderate faction devoted to making their party more electable by dragging it to the center? Or are they clever marketers trying to rebrand Reaganism for the 21st century? The simplest answer is that reform conservatives are garden-variety free-market conservatives who believe that a well-designed safety net and high-quality public services are essential parts of making entrepreneurial capitalism work. This separates them from more emphatically libertarian conservatives for whom the first priority is to eliminate as many government programs as possible. Then again, this anti-government zeal tends to be more rhetorical than real. Most rank-and-file conservatives tenaciously defend old-age social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare. Meanwhile, most conservative lawmakers who call for, say, shutting down the U.S. Department of Education routinely vote to spend on every major program it oversees. You could say that reform conservatives are just acknowledging the obvious: Government is in the business of protecting people from some of the downside risks of economic life, so we might as well get used to it. Reformocons go further than that, though, in arguing that government can do a lot of good, provided that it sticks to doing a few things well.

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. They believe a few other things as well. To the extent possible, social programs that help those who fall on hard times should be geared toward helping them achieve economic self-sufficiency, rather than letting them become permanently dependent. The tax code should encourage savings and investment. But it should also help low-wage workers out of poverty and do more for families with children. Barriers to upward mobility, like licensing restrictions that bar access to employment opportunities or urban land-use regulations that make housing unaffordable, are suspect. Reform conservatives, like most conservatives, favor greater competition in education and health care. Yet they also insist that government has a big role to play in making sure that everyone, particularly the poor, can reap the benefits of competition.

That sounds like a mixture of banality, hair-splitting, and straw-man bashing, not the battle cry of a newborn ideological movement making a bid for serious consideration. Where, exactly, is the powerful faction within conservatism (much less the Republican Party) that wants to wipe out the “social safety net” completely? Who is against “high-quality public services?” Which prominent Republicans want to annihilate Social Security and Medicare completely, replacing them with nothing? A good deal of what Salam is saying here amounts to taking Democrat caricatures of Republican politics seriously, which is not a good idea.

Most of the specific proposals Salam and Ponnuru mention fit fairly well within the overall rubric of good old mainstream conservatism. It’s that stuff about Big Government having a sacred mission to “do a lot of good” and play a major role in “making sure that everyone, particularly the poor, can reap the benefits of competition” that gives them their claim to distinction, and gets them in trouble with older, wiser hands who understand the pitfalls of such rhetoric. Do we really need any more painful, expensive lessons in how the alleged good intentions of the Leviathan State do nothing to keep its exertions from being destructive? After Barack Obama’s billion-dollar pratfalls have done so much to make managerial liberalism look foolish, will the public imagination be captured by Reformocon mumbling about how putting conservatives in charge of managerial liberalism will make it run slightly better, at slightly lower expense?

The delusion that Big Government will run more smoothly with moderate skeptics at the helm, instead of wild-eyed messianic true believers, is nothing new for Republican politics; as Limbaugh astutely noted, we heard the same thing back when “National Greatness Conservatism” was developed to push John McCain over George Bush. (The punch line, of course, is that George Bush proved to be quite agreeable to the notion of spending huge piles of imaginary money in pursuit of national greatness.) The new twist is that Reformocons will be bright-eyed, youthful Republicans who make soothing noises about how the debate over Big Government is over, winning golf claps from approving liberals and a smattering of moderate Democrat votes, but we can trust them to kick a few of the bigger, rustier gears out of the statist machine once they’re in power.

They’re underestimating how savagely their great-uncles on the Left will attack them as soon as they do anything remotely libertarian, having evidently forgotten the look of stunned amazement on John McCain’s face when his great buddies in the liberal media hopped off his Straight Talk Express and began slashing its tires, the instant they had a liberal champion with a more expansive view of government benevolence to root for. If the Reformocons are taken seriously enough to be a factor in 2016, they’ll discover they have outlived their usefulness the instant the Republican primaries are over; they will then be lumped into the same Wingnut Extremist category as the traditional conservatives they current regard as extremists.

They’re also underestimating the power of the corruption argument. They’re trying to save Big Government’s integrity by saying the wrong people have been in charge of it, which abandons the compelling case to be made that no matter how smart and compassionate (and even nominally conservative) the masters of the Leviathan State might be, it’s still corrupt to the core. There is no way to make it more efficient or capable without also making it radically smaller. It’s not the sort of flabby beast that can be whipped into shape by making it do a few extra sit-ups.

To take one of the points Salam makes, the poor don’t need handouts from a more efficient version of the Mommy State to “reap the benefits of competition”–the incredibly low cost and high quality of the goods and services they enjoy, from inexpensive and abundant food to the low-cost shopping experience of Wal-Mart, have done more to improve their lives than easily-abused Big Government welfare programs.

It’s possible to make that argument without demanding the summary abolition of every safety-net program. It’s necessary to make that argument without praising our bloated welfare state and ignoring how counter-productive and dishonest it has been. Let’s not try to curry favor with liberals who will never stop despising us, by setting aside some of the most powerful weapons in our intellectual arsenal, buttressed by recent history that should not be flushed down the Memory Hole.


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