In the past few weeks there’s been a renewed debate about the conservative reform movement. At this point, there have been too many pieces written (on both the right and left) to respond to all of them, so I’ve included some links below for further reading. I just wanted to make a few broad points about the debate.
To start, it’s worth drawing a distinction between the Republican Party and the conservative/libertarian intellectual movement. An argument that adopting certain policy stances may help Republicans win elections is different from an argument that a given policy is practical or consistent with conservative principles. Conservatives will always see the Republican Party as the most realistic vehicle for advancing the conservative agenda and Republicans will often look to the conservative movement for ideas. But the two should not be used synonymously.
It’s also worth discussing the baseline against which “reform” is being measured. Is the baseline for being a reformer advocating changes to national policy? Or is it advocating changes to the conservative movement? To many liberals, a “conservative reformer” is one who supports positions that challenge conservative orthodoxy rather a conservative who supports transformational policies to address the nation’s current problems. Under that logic, a conservative who advocates ending the tax code’s bias in favor of employer-based insurance would not be considered a reformer, but one who supports a 25-cent increase in the minimum wage would be. This even though overhauling the tax code’s treatment of health insurance would have much more dramatic policy ramifications than a small increase in the minimum wage. That can’t be right. Instead, a conservative who wrestles seriously with policy and proposes changes to the status quo should be considered a reformer, whether or not one agrees with the reforms being proposed.
Ross Douthat makes a distinction among different groups of reformers, which include conservatives and “pragmatic libertarians.” On a philosophical level, I think there’s an important distinction to flesh out here. Many conservatives believe that there should be a basic social safety net, but they think it’s gotten too big, is poorly designed and undermines families. Those who are more libertarian, however, believe that in an ideal world, the social safety net wouldn’t be considered a proper function of government, especially the federal government. The more pragmatic libertarians, however, recognize that the safety net is here to stay, and thus are willing to settle for policies geared toward making it smaller and less intrusive. Oftentimes, these groups end up in the same places – for instance, backing Social Security personal accounts, school choice, Medicare premium support, block granting Medicaid, and so on. But other times, such as with the Medicare prescription drug plan and Romneycare, a some conservatives have shown themselves more willing to justify a bigger role for the government.
The election of President Obama and the emergence of the Tea Party both moved the Republican Party in a more libertarian direction, but in 2012, retreads from the Bush era and earlier dominated the GOP presidential field. As the post-Bush Republicans emerge as presidential contenders in 2016, I imagine we’ll see bolder policy proposals.