Over at the Atlantic, liberal author E.J. Dionne has offered a long critique of reform conservatism.
At the outset, I’ll give him credit for making an effort to try and understand the contours of the intellectual debate on the right — a lot of prominent liberal authors tasked with writing about conservatives wouldn’t even bother. So kudos to him on that front. That said, Dionne’s essay suffers from one central problem. At the end of the day, the only avenue he provides for conservatives to be truly serious is for them to become liberals.
Throughout his article, Dionne's assessment of whether lawmakers or writers are “serious” is directly proportional to how far left they're willing to veer. The effort of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, for instance, to outline a positive conservative governing agenda is dismissed as merely putting a reformist sheen on worn ideas for cutting government. On the other hand, columnist Josh Barro is praised for having “broken with conservative conventional wisdom altogether” by supporting President Obama's health care law.
Given that people of all political stripes like to use the word “reform,” it would be helpful were Dionne to identify some sort of objective standard for what counts as reform — for all sides. Does “reform” mean advocating changes within a political movement? Or does “reform” mean supporting a system of policy changes to address problems faced by the nation? Unfortunately, Dionne defaults to simply making genuine reform synonymous with liberalism.
For instance, Dionne criticizes the effort of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to address income mobility as “not much new” because in his speech on the issue, Rubio highlighted problems with the tax code, overregulation and the nation's debt problem, while opposing an increase to the minimum wage. So in other words, advocating changes to the tax and regulatory environment is treated as old and busted, whereas hiking the minimum wage -- a New Deal-era policy that's dusted off whenever a Democrat is searching for an economic policy -- is treated as the new hotness.
Dionne also has a curiously inconsistent view of when moderation should be considered a virtue.
“The promise of reform conservatism is that it will move the right to more moderate and practical ground,” Dionne writes.
Yet in another section of the essay, Dionne suggests that liberals might want to consider whether they’ve been too moderate and practical, as evidenced by Obama pursuing a health care overhaul that preserved private insurance companies instead of going full single-payer. “It’s something progressives need to think about: In trying to be practical, moderate, and reasonable, liberals themselves may have helped to shrink the philosophical space in which policies are formulated and arguments are carried out.”
This aside to progressives is actually quite telling when considered next to Dionne's hopes for reform conservatism. Unlike some critics of the conservative movement, Dionne isn't advocating for an environment in which Republicans and Democrats meet in the center. What he wants is for Republicans to abandon limited government ideology so that it creates more “philosophical space” for liberals to move the policy debate even further to the left. This is why Dionne concludes that, “To the extent that reform conservatives are willing to battle the Tea Party's reflexive hostility to government, they will be part of the solution.”
My own hope for reform is one in which the conservative movement is defined less by sloganeering, opposition to Democrats and its own version of identity politics, and associated more with a positive policy agenda. There’s a worthwhile debate to be had among conservatives — and between conservatives and liberals — about their genuinely different approaches to philosophy and policy. But Dionne’s essay is ultimately just another attempt to brand limited government ideology as inherently illegitimate in hopes of making the world safer for a more radical iteration of liberalism.