by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
As some right-of-center political thinkers pursue changes that have been grouped together under the name “reform conservatism,” most recently in a new book called Room To Grow, some liberals have responded with misguided criticisms. That’s the argument Ramesh Ponnuru puts forward in a National Review Online column.
E. J. Dionne Jr. has written the most thorough liberal examination of reform conservatism. His essay appeared in the journal Democracy a few days before Room to Grow was published, but it shows that Dionne has been reading the reformers attentively enough to give him an advantage over some commentators who weighed in afterward. Like Galston, he agrees with many of the reformers’ points but wishes we would go further. He wants us to make a sharper break with conservatism as it exists today by accepting a larger role for government, moving left on social issues, and criticizing our fellow conservatives more bluntly.
Dionne’s analysis, it seems to me, goes off track by setting reform conservatism in opposition to tea-party conservatism. The reformers, he writes, did not find the Republican party’s “wall of opposition” to President Obama’s agenda during his first term “particularly appealing,” and tea-party primary victories “sent a chill through the reform cause.” He thinks we are too frightened of our tea-party adversaries to denounce them. He believes that we “pander to anti-Obama feeling” and refuse to acknowledge the moderation of many of his policies, including especially Obamacare, because we “don’t want to offend” people to our right.
I’m confident that I do not speak only for myself in saying that my opposition to almost all of Obama’s policies is quite sincere. And about three-quarters of the proposing legislation that bears the reform-conservative imprint would not exist if not for the tea-party victories of Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio. (Dionne writes off Lee as merely trying to rebrand conservatism, which I don’t think does justice to his record of introducing creative new bills.) …
… Dionne writes that reform conservatives are “far too timid in their approaches to economic injustice and to the structural problems in the economic system.” We diagnose those injustices and problems differently than he does. But isn’t the contemporary progressive agenda pretty timid and unimaginative, too, even on its own terms? The central demand of a progressive president on economic matters is a higher minimum wage, and the left-wing favorite who recently became mayor of New York City wants more funding for preschools. Even if I thought these ideas were good ones, I would not think them likely to improve American life in any major way.
In his treatment of “the reformicons,” Dionne is thoughtful and even at times generous. But he seems to think that what contemporary conservatism needs is to be more like contemporary liberalism. Conservatives should decline the invitation and, because the condition of liberalism is not exactly enviable, should decline it without regret.