The Limits of Reform Conservatism

Over the holiday weekend, Ross Douthat delivered his latest column in favor of reform conservatism.  In this case, he highlighted the relative intellectual bankruptcy of the Right by noting that the most recent books from figures as seemingly different as Sen. Jeff Flake and Dinesh D’Souza ultimately offer the same unpopular, Goldwaterite take on domestic policy.

Whatever issues I may have with bits of the reformicon agenda, I will give it this: Lee Drutman’s increasingly wonk-famous scatterplot of the 2016 electorate (Fig. 2) suggests there’s more of a market for it than for the more libertarian vision Flake and others (myself included, much of the time) would prefer.

That doesn’t mean, however, that reform conservatism or populism can be the sole future of the Republican Party.

Douthat writes that the unpopularity of the tax-cuts-for-upper-earners-while-cutting-the-safety-net “is precisely the reason that Trump, with his Jacksonian populism, was able to defeat so many of Flake’s fellow Republicans on his way to the G.O.P. nomination — because he alone was not bound by right-wing ideological correctness.”  This overlooks that the GOPers Trump beat included some fairly reformicon-friendly candidates, e.g., Bush, Rubio, Perry, and Walker.

Was this due to the billions in free airtime that Trump received?  The explicit scapegoating of foreigners for America’s woes?  The data suggests that immigration hawkishness (which, in fairness, many reformicons support) played a much larger role in Trump’s success than Ivanka’s support for a childcare tax credit.  And the perceived lack of said hawkishness probably did in at least three of the four Trump rivals named above.

Indeed, in his concluding paragraphs, Douthat seems to suggest that the GOP can win elections (for now) by wrapping the unpopular, traditional GOP policies in anti-Left rhetoric because the Left is simply so much worse.  I’m not sure that’s true, but if it were, it would undercut the case for Trump’s economic heterodoxy mattering.

Also, when Douthat refers to the “safety net” it’s unclear (in this column, anyway) whether he’s referring to entitlements, as Trump’s heterodoxy avoids the question of our unfunded liabilities.

Douthat’s column does link to a piece by Pete Spiliakos that expressly addresses entitlements:

Flake wrote a book that explained what he thought had gone wrong in the recent history of the GOP, but he left out the central contradiction of post-George W. Bush Republican economic orthodoxy: The Republican party has simultaneously stood for cutting old-age entitlements and reducing taxes on high earners.

Individually, these policies are unpopular; together, they are absolutely toxic. I think entitlement cuts are necessary, and should entail gradual reductions for people who are currently in their fifties. But it is impossible to argue plausibly that we need to cut benefits for the old because we are broke, and at the same time cut taxes for the affluent.

That’s certainly a reasonable subject for debate, but Spiliakos later concludes that “Republicans have happened upon a set of policies that are untimely and unpopular.”  It’s funny how the unpopular policies also tend to be described as untimely.

Entitlement reform enacted sooner will be less painful later.  But just as voters would always prefer someone else be taxed, voters prefer that someone else’s benefits be reformed, even if those reforms don’t affect current benefits much.

And this is ultimately the problem with a fair amount of reform conservatism.  It’s practical, insofar as the prospect of more benefits is usually popular.  But one of the GOP’s redeeming features is that it is at least in theory aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

As Iowahawk has observed over the years:

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