A Progress Report on "Reform Conservatism"

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 12:40 PM EDT

Does the new generation of "reform conservatives" represent real change for the Republican Party? In policy terms, not really. They've offered up a few variations on popular conservative themes (reducing taxes via child tax credits instead of cuts in top marginal rates, for example), but for the most part they've just nibbled around the edges. David Frum, however, says this is still a good start:

What matters most about the reformers is not the things they say but the things they don’t. They don’t abuse the long-term unemployed. They don’t advocate tighter monetary policy in the midst of the worst slump since the 1930s. They don’t urge an immigration policy intended to drive wages even lower than they have already tumbled.

They don’t pooh-pooh the risks of a government default on its obligations, as many conservatives did when radicals in the GOP forced debt-ceiling confrontations in 2011 and 2013. They don’t blame budget deficits for the slow recovery from the crisis of 2009. They don’t shrug off the economic and social troubles of 80 percent of the American nation.

Fair enough. At the same time, there have always been successful conservatives who were tonally distinct from the tea party. Paul Ryan is the best-known example. He's mild-mannered and speaks in the language of an accountant. He always seems reasonable and willing to engage. He doesn't participate in tea party histrionics. In short, he doesn't say any of the things Frum mentions above.

And yet, Ryan remains a tea party darling, and for good reason: his budget is a radically right-wing enterprise. Perhaps the most genuinely radical, genuinely right-wing enterprise in all of Washington.

So the question for the reform conservatives is: What's next? Are they trying to build credibility with conservatives so they can later nudge them in a new direction? Or are they mostly just trying to put a friendly veneer on an essentially tea partyish agenda? We don't know yet, because so far they haven't been willing to take many risks. And with good reason. As a friend emailed just a few minutes ago, "The reformers are one bad suggestion away from being fully Frumanized out of the party."

I wish the reformers luck. And I don't really blame them for their timidity so far. Still, it's far too early to tell how serious they are. We'll just have to wait and see.

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