Reform conservatism: Do conservatives want it?

The YG Network has produced a manifesto for reform conservatism, the movement spearheaded by leading conservative thinkers who want to enact innovative programs that will assist the middle class while adhering to principles of limited government. The book — Room to Grow — features chapters by Power Line favorites Peter Wehner, Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, James Capretta (on health care), James Pethokoukis (financial and regulatory reform) and others. I look forward to reading the book and learning from it.

Matthew Continetti sees a problem with the reform conservatism movement, though. He doesn’t doubt that “if the Republican Party adopted Room to Grow as its platform tomorrow, then both the GOP and the country would enjoy a better future.”

But Continetti frets that reform conservatism lacks a “presidential champion.” He finds that among the most prominently mentioned 2016 Republican contenders, only the rather desperate Marco Rubio seems to be promoting conservative reform. For example:

Rand Paul advocates not reform conservatism but reform libertarianism. The conservatism Ted Cruz seems most interested in reforming is that practiced by the Senate Republican leadership. Jack Kemp and Edward Conard have more influence over Paul Ryan and his budget, which has served as the de facto governing document of the GOP since 2010, than do [contemporary reform conservatives].

In my view, the lack of such a champion is only a symptom of the real problem with reform conservatism. An agenda that has widespread support from a critical mass of rank-and-file conservatives will always find a presidential champion. And if that agenda derives from the thinking of conservatives of the caliber of Wehner, Levin, Ponnuru, et al., it will find more than one high-profile, respectable champion.

But rank-and-file conservatives are skeptical of reform conservatism. They wonder whether the next conservative administration should focus on putting government to better use or simply on scaling government back and getting it off our backs (as Ronald Reagan used to say). They wonder whether the next conservative administration should concentrate of formulating innovative new programs which, in the nature of things, would be entrusted to the liberal Washington bureaucracy, or whether it should concentrate on purging the Federal Register of the mischief wrought by eight (if not more) years of left-liberal rule.

Rank-and-file conservatives also have specific concerns about reform conservatism. Many wonder, as Continetti does, whether “you can have a pro-middle-class conservatism while supporting an amnesty that will incentivize a flood of cheap labor into this country.” Many wonder about the wisdom of programs they understand to be part of yesterday’s reform conservatism agenda — e.g., the common core and Bush’s prescription drug program.

The concerns are legitimate. If they are satisfactorily addressed, reform conservatism will have its political champions.

I look forward to seeing if and how they are addressed in Room to Grow.

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