Commentary Magazine


Topic: reform conservatism

Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?

Earlier this month I appeared on a panel at Harvard’s University’s Kennedy School of Government/Institute of Politics. The topic was “Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?”

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Earlier this month I appeared on a panel at Harvard’s University’s Kennedy School of Government/Institute of Politics. The topic was “Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?”

The event was hosted by Kristen Soltis Anderson and featured Ramesh and April Ponnuru, all of whom were excellent and all of whom played a role in the publication of what’s been called the “manifesto” of the reform conservative movement, Room To Grow: Conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class.

During the discussion we covered a fair amount of ground, including substantive policies, the politics of reform conservatism, and the future of the GOP. For those who are interested, here’s the link.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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Answering the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel

Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, whose work I generally like, has written a column in which she attacks a publication to which I contributed, Room to Grow. Most of her focus is on tax policy. She is a fierce critic of child tax credits, which Rob Stein, who authored the chapter on taxes, endorses.

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a response which is largely devoted to the matter of tax policy and child credits, and I commend it to you.

I thought it might be useful is to analyze two claims made by Strassel, one of which is that “The authors are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.”

Really, now? Ms. Strassel need only have read the opening paragraph of the introductory essay (written by me) to refute this assertion. Here’s what it says (the italics are mine):

Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

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Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel, whose work I generally like, has written a column in which she attacks a publication to which I contributed, Room to Grow. Most of her focus is on tax policy. She is a fierce critic of child tax credits, which Rob Stein, who authored the chapter on taxes, endorses.

Bloomberg’s Ramesh Ponnuru has written a response which is largely devoted to the matter of tax policy and child credits, and I commend it to you.

I thought it might be useful is to analyze two claims made by Strassel, one of which is that “The authors are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.”

Really, now? Ms. Strassel need only have read the opening paragraph of the introductory essay (written by me) to refute this assertion. Here’s what it says (the italics are mine):

Policy is problem solving. It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

If she had read only a bit further into the chapter, she would have stumbled across this:

conservatives in American politics need to understand constituents’ concerns, speak to those aspirations and worries, and help people see how applying conservative principles and deploying conservative policies could help make their lives better.

And this:

Conservatives today need to show Americans how the principles that led to successful solutions when applied to the problems of that era [the 1980s] can do the same when applied to the rather different problems of this one. The same principles applied to new problems will yield new solutions.

The point of Room to Grow–which is explicitly stated in the book–is to (a) elucidate how a conservative vision of government could speak to today’s public concerns; (b) suggest how such a vision would translate into concrete policy reforms; and (c) explain how that vision and those reforms embody the spirit of our constitutional system. That hardly amounts to arguing that principles need not drive conservative policy. In fact, it amounts to the opposite.

We of course take political realities into account, as any sane person, and certainly any true conservative, must; but that is done in order to make it more, not less, likely that a conservative governing agenda actually be translated into law.

Now let me turn to Strassel’s claim that Room to Grow’s central premise is “That conservatives need to embrace government to better endear themselves to the ‘middle class.'”

This charge, like the first one, is wildly wrong. In the book’s second chapter, by my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, he explains with some care why the proposals in the book would result in a government that “would no doubt be much smaller, more restrained, and less expensive than the one we have today.”

Yet Levin goes further than that. He also argues that conservatives should not be satisfied with accepting less of the same: the liberal welfare state at a lower cost. A bolder and more far-reaching goal is to change the underlying structure, the basic architecture, of much of the liberal welfare state, in order to advance the conservative vision of society.

The argument over which approach to tax cuts conservatives should take–tax credits for families v. cutting taxes on capital, and which are most appropriate at any given moment–is a serious and long-standing one. Ms. Strassel, an intelligent writer, is certainly able to present her substantive case. What is somewhat surprising is that her column so clearly misrepresents the book and the views of the various authors, to ascribe to them views and motivations that are quite obviously false.

She can do better than this, and usually she does.

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