Reformish Republicans Want Party Invites

Bruce BartlettApparently 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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

3 thoughts on “Reformish Republicans Want Party Invites

  1. Konczal’s six tenets leave out what I believe to be the most important one; "privatization," or, as it used to be called, "graft."

    We’re not meant to live in Grover Norquist’s dream world of a drownable government. We’re meant to live in a world where every conceivable function of government is milked for the last penny of profit.

    In theory, privatizing government services can be a good idea! Not in every case, only when some government institution has become corrupt and calcified. Give some company a five-year contract to provide those services, and, as the contract expires, examine their record and decide if a revamped government agency could do it better, or a competing business bidder.

    As we know, Republicans use this relatively sane logic for handing lucrative contracts over to their buddies, and those contracts are never re-examined. Once business has bought some taxpayer-funded service, they keep it forever. (And why not? Free money.) This is not anti-tax ideology (it’s quite pro-tax, in fact, although only poor people should pay taxes and only the rich should receive quality services.) It’s not shrinking government; it’s shrinking accountability for the services taxes paid to government are supposed to provide. (Government malfeasance is a matter of public record, while corporate corruption is a "trade secret.") It’s not about values, principles. It’s about stone cronyism; it’s about corruption; it’s about graft.

    I’d propose that graft is the real motivation of conservative politics, and their high-minded rhetoric is merely a way of defending graft. (Of course there will be true-believing exceptions.) Graft benefits the people they like better than annoying citizen activists, and enables them to cash in after their legislative careers are over by being given advisory/lobbyist/board positions. The ideology is how they sell graft to deluded constituents and how they sell corruption to themselves. But graft is the soul of what they stand for.

    The great, dead, unbelievably energetic songwriter Steve Goodman ("City Of New Orleans, a love note to Amtrak) had a terrific tune about civic corruption, "Lincoln Park Pirates." Here’s the YouTube link, audio only:

  2. @JMF – Good song!

    Dean Baker often writes about the ridiculous notion that conservatives are against government. You laid it out pretty well there. The larger point is that conservatives in general want to spend money on really expensive mostly useless stuff. The best assumption is that Republicans are trying to make the rich richer.

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