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Ron Radosh

You may not have heard of reform conservatism, but you should. For those who want conservative ideas to be taken seriously and to gain adherents of market-based reforms addressing the plight of the working middle class and the remains of the blue-collar class, the movement is imperative. It is simply not enough to yell “repeal Obamacare.” The conservative movement desperately needs new thinking that shakes things up and provides the kind of reforms that will address the problems our nation faces.

I view it as a most encouraging development that American Enterprise Institute, along with the Young Guns Network and National Affairs, hosted a major event last week to present leading reform conservatives, who spoke alongside both Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Other prominent speakers included Ramesh Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Peter Wehner, and Yuval Levin.

To understand precisely their approach, you can download their new e-book, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. The book has important essays by some of the most important and talented of serious conservative thinkers, who present new ideas on health care, tax reform, K-12 education, what kind of safety net conservatives should support, and almost every major policy issue. The thrust of their approach is what Peter Wehner notes to be the importance of developing policies that will “assist and empower working families — those who are, and those who want to be, in the middle class.”

Without the kind of effort these reform-conservative intellectuals have put forth, conservatives will always be vulnerable to the charge constantly made by left/liberal and social-democratic Democrats: Republicans don’t care about those who work, or about the poor and minorities. In his essay, Yuval Levin builds upon that task, and writes that conservatives have until now failed to put the call for limited government within the context of taking on what he calls the Left’s “technocratic approach to American society,” as well as its demands for an ever-expanding and limitless welfare state that avoids dealing with “the decentralized vitality of American life” while proposing programs that undermine its moral and economic foundations.

What these writers and thinkers are doing is taking on the ideology and assumptions of the Left’s vision of the world, both by challenging it head-on as well as offering alternative proposals that address the issues the Left always claims conservatives do not care about.

Already, only a scant few days from its unveiling, the left-wing is responding, realizing that this new effort is not just more of the same politicking. First came New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, arguing that a great gap exists between the group’s ambition and its actual ability to influence any Republican politicians. Chait goes back to what the Republican journalist Josh Barro told him last June, which is that “Republicans lack the imagination to come up with ideas to get higher wages, more jobs and affordable health care to the middle class. It is that there is no set of policies that is both acceptable to conservatives and likely to achieve these goals.”

Of course, the new effort precisely addresses Barro’s previous concerns. Of course, the skeptics are like E. J. Dionne, who has evolved over the years from a sharp centrist liberal to an apologist for the Obama administration, and who argues that whatever their intent, they will not succeed. He writes: “they are also limited by an increasingly conservative Republican primary electorate, the shift in the GOP’s geographical center of gravity toward the South, and a rightward drift within the business community.” In essence, his advice is give up — it won’t work, no one will listen, and everyone should accept the inevitable triumph of the Democratic Party and a forthcoming social-democratic European-style welfare state. Dionne, in other words, does not want the reform conservatives to succeed. As he puts it, “reform conservatism is better than the conservatism we have had. … But the conservatism we have had — and the politics it entails — will make it very hard for members of this movement to be as bold or as creative as our national moment requires.”

The Left, as Ross Douthat told Chait, believes that “American conservatism in its very essence is intent on soaking, punishing and immiserating the poor.” The goal of these reformers is to show that this is indeed not what conservatives want. One might ask Chait what he makes of the failures of LBJ’s “Great Society” program, which turned out to be an abysmal failure on many levels, and which they are now celebrating on its 50th anniversary, proclaiming the need to return to and finish Lyndon Johnson’s programs.

One positive sign that goes against the grain is Danny Vinik’s article in TNR, in which he admonishes liberals to take reform conservatism seriously. He suggests that the approach of Dionne and Chait is a cop-out, since instead of taking their ideas seriously and debating them, they respond by simply arguing that Republicans won’t act on any of their proposals. He has one point: there is a tension between trying to get politicians to listen while at the same time critiquing what they have come up with so far. Josh Barro, who is now with the New York Times, comments on what some of the problems are and argues that conservatives do address the deficit, but have not come up with ways to implement the tax cuts they propose.

At least Vinik is honest enough to write that “responding to valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit is more intellectually challenging. Many liberals are concerned that after eight years of Barack Obama and potentially eight more of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s agenda will grow stale. Without a contested primary, how will the party continue to improve and adapt? Democrats can start by evaluating their policies in comparison to those of reform conservatives.”

I don’t think many on the Left will listen to someone who actually uses the words “valid conservative ideas.” Instead, they will continue to push for a shift further to the left, arguing that their party of choice should follow the lead of either Elizabeth Warren or, God forbid, Bernie Sanders. But, if they have their dithers, the Left should instead take Vinik’s advice: “Liberals should not dismiss [the reform conservatives] because reformers may have underestimated the gap between their ideas and the Republican Party’s current platform.”

If that happens, then we can have a real and meaningful and honest debate between those of us who hold a conservative vision and others who adhere to a leftist and social-democratic one. In the meantime, the smart group of reform conservatives have made a challenge to all conservatives and Republicans to come up with new ways of thinking. It’s about time.

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