Reformicons: Civil War on the Right?

There’s the old story about the Michigan state senator who said one day on the floor of the legislature, “Some of my friends are for this bill, and some of my friends are against this bill, and I’m going to stick with my friends!”

That’s how I feel about the back-and-forth playing out in the latest Claremont Review of Books over the subject of “Reform Conservatives,” aka, “Reformicons.” The estimable William Voegeli takes dead aim at what he regards as dangerous concessions to liberal premises in a long piece in the latest Claremont Review of Books. Here’s one of his key objections:

What will be harder to overcome is some conservatives’ fears that the reform conservative project entails conceding more than the inescapable need for expertise in formulating and implementing public policies. If it concedes, instead, the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society to-do lists for government, and confines its critique of liberalism to the use of bad means for achieving good ends, many conservatives are going to go AWOL rather than fight for those circumscribed goals. Such defections would make it difficult for reform conservatism to be the path, or even a path, to making conservatism more electorally competitive. The core conservative argument to voters would become that our five-point proposals for dealing with this or that social need and concern are bounded, decentralized, and nimble, while liberals’ eight-point proposals are bloated, intrusive, and ineffective. Even if completely true, that declaration doesn’t rank with, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” when it comes to stirring conservatives’ blood.

Pete Wehner and Ramesh Ponnuru, leaders of the Conservative Reform Network effort that produced the first Reformicon book last year, Room to Grow, come to the defense. First Pete:

If Voegeli believes that the New Deal and the Great Society are inherently illegitimate and conservatives ought to wage a full-scale, fundamental assault on them—that conservatives should proudly promise to uproot every last vestige of them—then he will destroy conservatism as a viable political movement. The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson summarized this political reality when he said, “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.” There is plenty of evidence that Americans are unhappy with the performance of modern government; there is little evidence to suggest that they are unhappy with the aims of modern government. It is not as though the New Deal was snuck through by a crafty Franklin Roosevelt and has been resented by the American people ever since. Whether conservatives like it or not, the pillars of the New Deal and most of the Great Society have been strongly and consistently reaffirmed in election after election, both congressional and presidential. Since the New Deal, in fact, no national politician has been elected promising to undo it, including the conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Ramesh offers a similar defense:

To my mind, “reform conservatism” largely consists of undertaking a practical task. Conservatism has generally excelled at propounding a philosophy of government, with great stress on government’s limits. It has not, especially in recent years, been as good at outlining an agenda that would be attractive to the public. Conservative politicians have not, by and large, presented an agenda that offered tangible advantages to many people or explained how it did so.

This is not a defect inherent to conservatism. Conservatives in the late 1970s and early 1980s made the case that the conservative agenda would make American life better for most people: reducing crime, providing tax relief, ending gas lines. This was not the whole of the conservative case. But it was a politically indispensable part of it.

It remains indispensable today. So it seems to me that conservatives should identify public concerns, think through how we can address those concerns by applying conservative insights, and then argue for the resulting agenda. We should shrink government—especially in the places, and the ways, where it would do the most good. . .

Most conservatives, Voegeli writes, are interested in “leashing rather than reforming government.” I am not sure this distinction holds up. Take health care, where the most alarming recent expansion of government has taken place. There is no significant force in American politics seeking an end to all federal involvement in health care. There is no caucus in the House that wants to end Medicare, Medicaid, the tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance, and the requirement that hospitals provide emergency care to all comers, and replace them with nothing. All existing conservative proposals can therefore be described as reforms of existing federal health policy.

There’s lots more at the links above, and I do encourage interested readers to take in the whole exchange.

Two comments. Well, really a “full disclosure” and a comment. First, I’m participating in the Reformicon sequel project with a paper on energy and environmental policy. But second, the defenses Pete and Ramesh offer here, while making sound practical political points, leave undisturbed a broader problem of modern liberalism, which is the ratchet effect: once liberalism puts in place a program or new frontier of government action, conservatives who “reform” such programs are tacitly ratifying big government. Are we really going to “fix” Obamacare so that it actually works “better”?

There may not be a good answer or solution to this. And that’s why I’m going to stick with my friends!


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