The GOP’s Pitiful Reformers

Michael Tomasky isn’t impressed with a group of alleged conservative reformers.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

Over the weekend, Bob Dole delivered the opinion that he couldn’t make it in today’s Republican Party. And not just him: “Reagan couldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, ’cuz he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it.” His words put me in mind, as a disturbing number of things do these days, of the so-called conservative reformers, the half-dozen or so male pundit-intellectuals on the right who have, through some clever prestidigitation that I have yet to comprehend, come to be known as reformers. They are very smart fellows, and they can be interesting to read. But they are “reforming” the Republican Party in about the sense that Whitney Houston’s hairdresser was helping her by giving her a great coif. Houston’s problem in life wasn’t her hair, and what’s wrong with today’s GOP—what Dole was talking about—isn’t going to be fixed by figuring out exactly what kind of “base-broadening” the tax code needs.

The men often named in this group include David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Avik Roy, and a few others. Josh Barro is sometimes included, as are David Frum and Bruce Bartlett. But these are errors: Frum and Bartlett have been so outspoken—courageously so, I note—in their contempt for today’s GOP that they have sort of taken themselves off the roster. Barro, a young Bloomberg View columnist, is (it seems to me) more than halfway down the Frum-Bartlett path.

There has been lots of interesting writing on my side of the fence about these men lately. Ryan Cooper wrote a big Washington Monthly piece with short bios of all of them and a rating system assessing their zeal for reform and access to power. Jon Chait profiled Barro in The Atlantic. Policy analyst Mike Konczal assessed whether their policy proposals really constitute something new that isn’t being said by elected officials within the party. Paul Krugman has weighed in as well.

The general verdict among these writers is that there isn’t much there there. Konczal takes them seriously as policy analysts but concludes that much of what they say “is actually a defense and potential extension of already-existing policies against people further to the right” and is ultimately “more gestural than substantive.” If you read through Cooper’s rating system, you will be struck by the consistency with which those he deems most committed to reform are the ones with the lowest juice quotient, while the one with the lowest reform rating—Levin, who just won some big quarter-million-dollar right-wing prize of some kind (wish we had those!)—has a perfect-10 insider score.

Just yesterday, Avik Roy responded to these and other articles by lamenting that we liberals just don’t understand what Al Haig might have called the “nuance-al” genius of the new breed. It seems liberal critics have missed the “important philosophical difference between the liberty- and opportunity-oriented conservatives.” Further, these con-reformers believe in equality of opportunity, not of outcomes, and therefore liberals (who support the latter, you see) couldn’t possibly grasp the depth of their insights.

Here’s what Roy says he wants: to “orient the GOP agenda around opportunity for those who least have it, to offer these individuals a superior alternative to failed statist policies.” Please. You get a lot of this from Republicans. Paul Ryan says things like this all the time. Rick Santorum did. Even Mitt Romney did, though to a lesser extent. But it’s all nonsense because they have invented a straw-man version of liberalism in their heads that isn’t anything like the liberalism that actually exists.

A few years ago, Santorum published his book It Takes a Family, his response to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. He said the book was about poverty. As Mark Schmitt noted in a merciless review in The American Prospect, Santorum kept announcing that he was advancing brave new proposals that the “village elders” (the liberal establishment) would never countenance. The only problem was that every one of Santorum’s brave new ideas—helping poor families build wealth—were old liberal ideas. Asset-building as an idea has existed since about 1990, and it wasn’t conservatives who invented it.

The journal I edit (also not conservative!) just published a big symposium on asset-building. We did that in conjunction with a group called the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which has been working on the issue for 20 years. They’re a nonpartisan group, so they are not political with a big P, but let’s just say I don’t think there are many Atlas Shrugged readers roaming CFED’s halls. Put more simply, it’s liberals who have led the way on asset-building for years, in the academy and on Capitol Hill. But Santorum has, and all conservatives have, a liberal demon in their heads who wants poor people to remain dependent on big-daddy government. It’s a lie, and a really lame and stupid one.

And let’s say an asset-building-related piece of legislation—there are several, and they’re just sitting there—became the subject of attention and controversy. Who would be for it, and who would be against it? We know very well who. At the first syllable Obama uttered in its favor, the Republicans practically to a person would oppose it. And now, finally, we get to the real problem with the GOP, a problem these people all just ignore, and why the opening analogy to Whitney’s stylist is apt.

The big problem with today’s Republican Party isn’t its policies. Certainly, those policies are extreme and would be deeply injurious to middle-class and poorer Americans should they be enacted. But Bob Dole wasn’t thinking, I don’t believe, just of policies. He was talking about the whole package—the intolerance, the proud stupidity, the paranoia, the resentments, the rage. These are intertwined with policy of course—indeed they often drive policy. But they are the party’s real problem. And where these “reformers” fail is that they never, ever, ever (that I have seen) criticize it with any punch at all.

Hey, Avik! Would you like to know why 90 percent of black people aren’t listening to your message? Because you don’t want them to vote! Not you personally (at least I assume), but your party. I know that you think black people are victims of false consciousness (how Marxist of you!), but do you also think they are stupid? If you and your wonderful Arthur Brooks want to develop a program to attract black voters, you might start by trying to change your party’s position on the question of attempting to pervert the law to deny them their franchise.

But they’ll never do that. And these people never call out the crazies. I’m sure that Louie Gohmert and Steve King probably embarrass them. Or maybe they don’t; Ponnuru recently penned a pretty sprightly defense of Ted Cruz. This is actually an interesting question, and I suppose the answer varies from person to person. But either way the result isn’t flattering. Those who falsely deny that the current GOP is off its rocker are lying to themselves and their readers, while those who genuinely don’t think it is are by definition out to lunch themselves. And the bottom line is that if they don’t say anything about all this, then they’re simply not reforming the Republican Party in any sense that is worth taking remotely seriously.