I think it’s fair to say that, excepting those conservatives with a passion for solitude, these are not halcyon days for members of the center-right. On the political end you’ve got guys like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul that non-crazy cons have to passive-aggressively half-defend; and on the policy side you’ve got…well, it’s not so clear, really.
Some right-wingers and non-partisan media lights like to claim that, within conservatism, there’s a nascent reform movement struggling to break free and personified by folks like Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Ross Douthat, Yuval Levin and other very serious gentlemen. Others, usually left-wingers, are not so sure.
Responding to the doubters, Reihan Salam, the reform-ish rightwing intellectual who is probably second only to Ross Douthat in prominence, insists that there is indeed a conservative movement — just so long as we use a definition of movement that no one would use, ever (emphasis his):
[I]f the question is whether or not there really is a “conservative reform” movement in policy, the answer would have to be no under a stringent definition of a movement. It might be more apt to refer to a reformist tendency, which doesn’t so much represent a dramatic departure from U.S. conservatism as it’s been practiced in recent decades but rather a shift of emphasis.
Movement, tendency, gesture, feint — whatever you want to call it, the question remains: is there any “there” there? Are these soft apostates actually challenging their colleagues’ ideas not only on means but also ends?
Because it’s worth keeping in mind that the Democratic Leadership Council — which I’m using as something of a synecdoche for the overall rightward shift of the Democratic Party 20+ years ago — was offering policy ideas that actually cut against the ideological grain. De-regulation of Wall Street, in other words, didn’t represent a “tendency” or a gesture. It was an honest-to-god change in philosophy and policy.
Do we see the same from this group of conservatives? I think Mike Konczal makes a persuasive argument that the answer is no, and that the (mild) intra-conservative conflict we’ve seen thus far is about reformers pushing against ideas from the right — like a return to the Gold Standard — rather than pushing their fellow conservatives in a genuinely new direction.
Salam waves this critique away by claiming, more or less, that Konczal won’t be happy until we’re all singing the “The Internationale”. But that’s a cop-out, and one of the older ones in the cop-out catalog, too. The essence of reform, after all, is to change — not eradicate, but change — what or who you are. Reform means difference. Therefore, any proposed shift can be argued against as a betrayal of identity or principles.
I was going to point to an example in Salam’s recent history of his encountering this very same response from his rightwing critics — but truth be told, for all his reputation as a different kind of conservative, Salam has precious little in his career for a purge-mongering right-winger to seize upon as evidence.
Grand New Party, the 2009 manifesto of sorts he coauthored with Ross Douthat, didn’t inspire much one way or the other, probably because its ideas were “suggestions rather than concrete proposals” and because those suggestions, flimsy as they were, never actually stepped on any conservative toes; expanding tax credits is an idea everyone likes without wanting to think much about; focusing more on the working class is similarly anodyne.
Salam, then, is not the best messenger. But besides David Frum, Bruce Bartlett and Josh Barro — all well-past or in the midst of becoming persona non grata on the right — he’s all conservative Republicans have got. And until these people come to understand that calling for more direct appeals to the white working class is, to put it mildly, not such “new thinking,” then conservatives with a “tendency” to politely and quietly disagree with Michele Bachmann’s loonier pronouncements is as reform-minded as it’ll get.