One pundit I admire, Ross Douthat, and another I admire and count as a friend, Reihan Salam, have waded into the debate over whether reform conservatism amounts to a coherent ideological vanguard, or is only a loose blanket for a set of sensibilities about what the political right should start to sound like. I lean more toward the latter, which is Salam’s take, for a variety of reasons: the splintering of conservative reformers over immigration; their imprecision on the bullet points of the healthcare fight (are they bothered by the “cadillac tax” for high quality insurance plans, or is it the one thing they like about Obamacare); the lack of a defense in conservative intellectual circles for Senator Pat Toomey’s bravery on guns; the fact that the class of reformers is made of columnists and bloggers and not congressmen and presidential aspirants all undercut the idea of even a sort of unified front. But what Salam calls a “tendency” still reminds me of what Democratic reformers were doing 20 years ago. And if history repeated itself, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.
First, the history: for all of the varnished memories of exactly how Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council reframed their party, it was no masterpiece of cohesion around policies or specific goals. To be sure, Clintonian reformers were virtually all free traders and advocates of tougher teacher standards and charter schools. To a person, they thought that welfare was too easy to obtain and even easier to depend upon, which distinguished them from 20 years of liberal rhetoric.
But these were relatively small sized pieces of the conversation at the time. On a much larger array of issues, Democratic reformers were all over the map. Some were ardent social liberals, who even then touted gay rights, others were notably sympathetic to the pro life movement and uncomfortable that liberalism verged on being libertarian. Some were anti-affirmative action, just as many thought anti-quota talk made them sound like mini Pat Moynihans (a Democrat, but a liberal scourge for years for his advice that the subject of racial injustice could use a dose of “benign neglect”). Some thought it a priority to readjust Reagan era tax rates to take a bigger chunk from the wealthy, others were self-consciously pro-business (the DLC’s bills were always heavily footed by industry lobbyists) and promoters of corporate rate cuts. One camp embraced comprehensive healthcare reform, another feared it was too costly and smacked of sixtyish redistribution.
There was, in other words, a consensus on a few second tier agenda items, disarray on the hottest subjects in politics, mixed with a strategic instinct about making Democratic political language more middle class friendly, deemphasizing identity based appeals, and there was a fondness for the word “community” without a lot of common ground on what that meant.
Yet, for all of the ambiguity, Democratic reformers in the gap years between Reagan and Clinton mattered a great deal. They introduced thematic arguments that were foreign to the liberal activists who had controlled the Democratic nominating process since 1972: notions like personal obligation, mutual responsibility and the concept that a downsized government could more efficiently promote progressive values, and that all of these principles were not code words for survival of the fittest. And by driving these arguments, DLC style Democrats showed a side of their party that was more attractive to blue collars and suburbanites than the interest group beholden, socially permissive brand of their intra-party rivals.
It strikes me that today’s right of center reformers are doing something similarly abstract, but potentially just as vital. The reform crowd is injecting into the conservative value stream the ideas that (1) middle class insecurity and stagnant wages are a genuine threat to the national wellbeing, a concept that explicitly rejects the assessment that over-regulation is the only source of trouble; that (2) public policy can and should promote economic upward mobility, although through market oriented means, which diverges from the Tea Party wing’s constitutionalism, and its single-minded desire to whittle government down to no domestic agenda other than protecting economic liberty; and that (3) there is such a thing as entrenched inequality, especially in areas like education and access to healthcare, and that the interest in social cohesion gives conservatives stakes in carving out opportunity based solutions.
If I had my druthers, I would push that reform mindset further than some of my cohorts on the center right would. I line up with the majority of Republicans who believe expanded background checks for buying firearms don’t shatter the rights of any law abiding citizen. I think the “Cadillac plan” tax in Obamacare is as lousy a policy as the individual mandate and is far more likely to break the backs of middle income workers. I am much more dubious than many conservatives that a First Amendment that was designed in a century where campaign contributions barely existed is a spigot for unfettered campaign dollars by businesses or individuals. I would rather see an immigration approach that got tougher in tangible ways, like making illegal entry a felony and making an illegal immigrant’s failure to declare and register a deportable offense, but still provided some form of legal gateway for the undocumented, to either the overly complex bill working its way through the Senate or to an enforcement only approach. And I would trust states to resolve the debate over defining marriage, which separates me from some reform conservatives who would embrace a right of same sex marriage as another extension of limited government.
But even the more slimmed down principles I describe earlier are a way of taking on the political and rhetorical landscape that has dominated the Republican Party of late and articulating a different path. That’s not much of a policy synthesis, per se; as Reihan Salam puts it, it is well short of a movement. But it is, I suspect, as essential as what the center left’s reformers did a generation ago. If only this right-leaning reform impulse is set to have as good a run as its Democratic predecessor.