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Reform Conservatism's Biggest Challenge in 2015

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In 2008, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two young conservative writers, argued in their book Grand New Party that the Republican Party needed a new agenda that focused on working class Americans. With that, reform conservatism, as it has become known, was born.

Since then Douthat, now at the New York Times, and Salam, the executive editor of the National Review, have been joined by dozens of conservative writers, including Ramesh Ponnuru and James Pethokoukis. These so-called reformocons have gained influence both within the GOP and in the national media. The fact that, over the past two months, they have been repeatedly attacked from the left and right over their conservatism is a testament to that growing influence. But while they have made substantial progress over the past six years, their toughest challenge is yet to come.

On Monday, The Week's Jeff Spross offered the latest advice to the reformocons: Join the Democratic Party. “Pushing changes through the legislature and past the presidential veto pen requires log-rolling and compromises, which gets to the bedrock problem: the reformicons have nothing to offer other Republican constituencies,” he writes. “From the standpoint of a well-heeled evangelical or an oil business professional or a Wall Street trader, reformicon proposals are all costs, no benefits. In their current home, the reformicons have no room to maneuver.” Spross’s piece followed up one earlier this month from Salon’s Elias Isquith, who argued that the reformocons lacked “a dedicated constituency.”

At the moment, Spross and Isquith are right. Reform conservatism does not have a clear constituency that will put money and manpower behind their ideas to turn them into laws. But that is far too static an analysis of reform conservatism. Instead, consider how far Douthat, Salam and their fellow reformocons have come in a short time. Along with having positions at top media organizations, they have developed a policy institute called the YG Network. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who looks more and more like a presidential candidate each day, spent 2014 unveiling new policy proposals on a wide array of issues, from Social Security to tax reform to health care, that mimicked many reformocon ideas. Rubio recently published a book that compiled all of those ideas into a new governing agenda. Utah Senator Mike Lee, one of the Tea Party’s biggest stars, has also taken up the reformocon mantle. Even Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has tried to brand himself as a reform conservative, although he hasn’t been welcomed into the reformocon family just yet.

It takes time to build a movement like reform conservatism. Spross and Isquith may be unable to identify a reformocon constituency right now, but that does not mean one will not develop. It certainly doesn’t mean that they should give up on their party, as Spross suggests. And if you look closely, you can see where that constituency could lie: the Tea Party.

In the winter edition of National Affairs, Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action, argues that the intraparty fights over the past few years have been productive for the Republican Party. “Those eager to shake up the stale agenda of the Republican Party do their cause no service by standing on the sidelines or opposing the Tea Party’s efforts; in this fight, reformers of all stripes must hope the Tea Party wins,” he writes. Needham is not just any Republican. He is one of the most powerful Tea Party leaders, and Heritage Action is, in The Washington Post's words, “D.C.’s toughest arbiter of conservatism”—so tough that some House Republicans "are peeved that it's so difficult to score well on the group's vote ratings."

Needham sees reform conservatism as a key ally of the Tea Party. He lavishes praise on Douthat and Salam’s 2008 book and calls Lee and Rubio “among the most innovative policy entrepreneurs among congressional Republicans.” He even goes so far as to support Rubio and Lee’s tax plan, which has angered some on the right by using money to expand the Child Tax Credit instead of focusing solely on cutting marginal tax rates. “The need for fresher ideas than marginal tax-rate reductions and platitudes about regulation and the size of government is not clear to [establishment Republicans], due not to poor motives but to a lack of reflection,” he writes.

While Needham seems to support the Lee-Rubio plan, convincing the remainder of the Tea Party to follow his lead will not be easy. After all, Republican presidential candidates have a bad habit of proposing wildly unrealistic, sometimes mathematically impossible tax plans. That’s why many on the right think a flat tax is a legitimate option for tax reform. Any policy that raises revenue is dead on arrival—and anything that increases spending is unacceptable, or at the very least requires a spending offset.

Spross see this as a key reason why reformocons should join the Democrats. “They will be friendlier to the multiple different ways of paying for the [tax] credits,” he writes. “In short, the Democrats' coalition provides the reformicons with a menu of different possible policy alliances and compromises that the GOP simply does not.” But this gives the Tea Party too little credit and imagines far more overlap between the Democratic and reformocon agendas than actually exists. The Tea Party, as Needham writes, sees government as rigged for the rich and for big corporations. The policy solutions that flow from that generally involve shrinking government in irresponsible ways (more on that below). But both the Tea Party and reformocons want antipoverty spending to be efficient and work-friendly. Democrats largely want to raise taxes on the rich, such as by increasing the capital gains rate, to pay for different policies.

To be clear, the reformocons have a long way to go. They’ve made it onto the national stage and have convinced some key Republican figures that their ideas are best. But it’s a whole different game to convince the base of that—the Tea Party, specifically.

While Needham’s essay demonstrates how the Tea Party’s interests can be closely aligned with those of reform conservatives, it also reveals the reformocons’ biggest challenge: governing responsibly without endangering that Tea Party support. If the Tea Party has proven anything during the Obama presidency, it is that they cannot govern responsibly. Needham’s essay reinforces that.

“The general perspective of the establishment is that, with a few exceptions, it is ‘brinksmanship’ to force conflicts over conservative policy,” he writes, “especially on must-pass legislation.” I don’t know why Needham put brinksmanship in quotes. The Tea Party’s position on the debt ceiling, in particular, has been quintessential brinksmanship. But Needham is blind to how dangerous and politically toxic these tactics are. He even believes that the 2013 government shutdown was a success for the GOP:

And on the most controversial of all these fights — the effort to defund Obamacare — the failure to achieve immediate success obscured the important long-term victory secured in the process: that the Tea Party successfully forced Republican office-holders to recommit to repeal in the post-2012 landscape and forced the media to treat the law's status as a live issue rather than a settled policy matter. Obamacare opponents are far better positioned to achieve their goals as a result.

None of that is true. Obamacare was not a focal point of the midterms, and the media largely treats it a settled issue (with the exception of the upcoming Supreme Court case). In fact, the effort to defund Obamacare was a disaster, sending the party's approval rating shooting downward.

Needham points to last summer’s fight over legislation to address the border crisis as the most substantial Tea Party victory that resulted from these brinksmanship tactics. In that, House conservatives killed legislation that would have provided additional resources for the Department of Homeland Security to deal with the thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border. Republican leadership instead worked with Tea Party members and the House eventually passed legislation to address the crisis while also rolling back President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive action on immigration.

Needham is right that conservatives won that fight. But that wasn’t a fight over must-pass legislation. The Senate left town without passing anything and the border crisis dissipated, in no small part thanks to actions by the Obama administration. The fact that the fight was not over must-pass legislation is exactly what allowed the Tea Party to win. Otherwise, House Speaker John Boehner would have eventually had to compromise with Democrats, whether on the debt ceiling or government funding bill. That’s how governing works when neither party has full control over government.

While Needham and the Tea Party seem unable to understand this, the reformocons largely are not interested in picking these fights. As Republicans debated their strategy on the debt ceiling in 2013, Salam argued that they should tie it to passage of the Keystone pipeline. “I am sympathetic to the view that we should not have a statutory debt limit,” he wrote. Ponnuru argued that Republicans should use the leverage that comes along with the debt ceiling but wanted to insulate the economy from consequences of breaching it by allowing the Treasury to make debt-service payments. This is in sharp contrast to the Tea Party’s defund Obamacare strategy. Many on the far right even view a default as a good thing.

If reformocons want to turn their ideas into laws, they’ll have to govern without shutting down the government and bringing us to the brink of default. But it’s not clear that they can adopt such a legislative strategy without alienating the Tea Party at the same time. And if that’s the case, then Spross and Isquith will prove correct: the reformocons won’t have a committed constituency. But it’s far too early to declare that.