CRF Blog

Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?

by Bill Hayes

In Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas? for New York Times Magazine, Sam Tanenhaus looks at reform conservatives, who are developing ideas to help the middle class.

In May, a handful of prominent legislators gathered at a Beltway think tank, along with some writers and policy experts, to discuss, as the event’s organizers somberly put it, “conservative policy options to further the prosperous society President Lyndon Johnson described in his ‘Great Society’ address 50 years ago.” If this seemed strange, the venue and cast were even stranger: the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of right-leaning ideology, filled with Republicans, speaking in a language most unlike the one we’ve heard in recent years.

There was Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, fresh from his easy primary win in Kentucky, who said in his keynote remarks that the time had come for the G.O.P. to stop being the handmaiden to Wall Street and instead attend to the anxieties of the middle class. “Our average voter is not John Galt,” McConnell said, referring to the visionary hero of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” that sacred text of the libertarian right. “Hymns to entrepreneurialism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant.” Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party hero elected in the wave of 2010, was there promoting a child-tax-credit proposal. South Carolina’s Tim Scott, one of the Senate’s two sitting African-Americans, scolded his party for not having “spent enough time figuring out how to unleash the American dream in some of our strongest and poorest areas of the country.”

And then there was Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, its second-highest-ranking figure and, most assumed, the next speaker of the House. Cantor’s rise in power and visibility over the last six years was largely a result of his role in devising the Republican strategy of unbending opposition — always, everywhere — to anything Barack Obama proposed. Cantor built strong ties to Wall Street and to wealthy, conservative donors, and yet here he was, too, espousing the new reformist principles: that the G.O.P. was letting down its actual base, by which he meant “the bulk of the people in this country” who “are feeling that this country is not there for them.” Sounding like a graduate of the Joe Biden School of Empathy, Cantor told the audience that he himself has found, when imagining a path toward better policy, that “it’s very helpful sometimes to think about the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month.”

Strangest of all, the true stars of the proceedings were the intellectuals whose work was showcased that morning and had seeped into the legislators’ rhetoric. Two young men, in particular, were responsible for this change: Yuval Levin, a former policy adviser to George W. Bush and founder of the earnest quarterly journal National Affairs, and Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review and columnist at Bloomberg View. Each is an intellectual prodigy in his 30s, and together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine — orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street — and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.

The event was a success by almost every measure. In the following days, praise flowed predictably from the conservative media — National Review, The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page — but also Mike Allen’s Playbook column on Politico, which quoted snippets from the “conservative manifesto for the middle class,” and The New Republic. The magazine published a skeptical profile of Levin in 2013, but now it conceded, “Liberals should take reform conservatives seriously,” because they are putting forth “valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit.”

The reformicons, it seemed, had captured their party’s imagination. But three weeks later, on June 10, the narrative of the newly in-touch G.O.P. met the colder reality of politics …. [more]