Apparently there is a push going on to highlight “reasonable” conservative writers. Yesterday, I wrote about Jonathan Chait’s article on Josh Barro. And earlier this month, Ryan Cooper wrote an article, Reformish Conservatives. That’s a good term: reformish. In general, there are no reformers; there are conservatives who occasionally criticize their movement. And then there is Bruce Bartlett.
Before I get to the controversy, let me discuss Bartlett. He is the only one of the supposed reformers who actively does battle with the conservative movement. He was a conservative economist. He still is a conservative economist. Both the parties have moved to the right such that Bartlett now fits solidly in the Democratic Party. That’s an indictment of the parties, not of Bartlett. I don’t consider myself a political radical. It is only in our screwed up system with its Overton window so small shifted far to the right that I appear a radical. Similarly, Bartlett is a conservative.
Cooper’s article lists a number of these supposed reform conservatives. And it includes some people who are insightful: Joss Barro, David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru. But even they are mostly apologists for the Republican Party. And the rest? David Brooks, Reihan Salam, Avik Roy, Yuval Levin, Ross Douthat. They are entirely apologists. All they do is put a friendly face on conservatism. They’re the guys who tell you in a soothing tone that they really care about the poor and that is why the estate tax must be abolished.
Thankfully, there has been some push back. Paul Krugman said pretty much what I do, “But what the ‘reformish’ conservatives Ryan Cooper lists do, in almost all cases, is either (a) to follow the party line on these issues or (b) to hint at some flexibility—and thereby cultivate an image of being open-minded—as long as the issues don’t get close to an actual policy decision, but to always find a way to support the Republican position whenever it actually matters.” This is the problem with the narrative, “I didn’t leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me.” The Republican Party has largely been post-fact for 30 years. I can understand taking a while to figure that out—Bruce Bartlett did. But even ten years ago it was too clear that the Republicans had fallen down the rabbit hole. Anyone still supporting them must at base be more interested in party loyalty than facts and policy.
Mike Konczal went even further. He listed the six tenets of the conservative movement. They are really just three: reduce taxes on the rich, cut spending on the poor, ignore (or worse) the environment. (If you think that’s a strawman, check out the article because he goes into more depth.) And then he listed the “reform” positions: the Fed isn’t all bad; EITC is good; minor financial reform wouldn’t be a bad idea; and crony capitalism is bad. These are at best snipping around the edges. As Konczal wrote, this is “more gestural than substantive.” And indeed it is! The original point of Cooper’s article was that the Republican Party just wants to change its messaging but not its policies. Well, in general, that’s all the “reformers” want to do too.
Konczal also noted that all the reformers work in the abstract. They don’t call for specific policies. He mentioned calling for the Republicans to stop blocking allowing a head to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Of course, none of them do that. At best, these reformers want to maintain their credibility in the Republican Party. But I think it is worse than that. They want to stay in the Republican Party but they want to signal to their friends that they aren’t one of those kinds of Republicans. So they want Republican policy, but they don’t want to be embarrassed at Washington parties.