Building Better Conservative Reformers

How to get the most out of the right's best ideas.

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In my column last week, I suggested that "reform conservatives" (conservatives who want to make the Republican Party relevant to the problems of today) needed to consider unemployment as a key policy plank of their platform. There are other policy planks that can be considered – education and prison reform immediately come to mind.

Given that many policy ideas are already out there, in think tanks, journals and partisan publications, how can these changes actually become more widely known and part of the fabric of the Republican Party?

The conservative movement has arguably been aware of its need to adapt since the end of the Cold War, as left-wing parties across the world began to appropriate the language of markets and enterprise. As David Frum wrote in 1997:

Once, conservative advocacy of competitive enterprise and balanced budgets was pitted against the left-wing faith in state control and lavish spending. Now that the old left-wing dogmas have been shattered, former left-wingers like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Paul Martin claim to endorse free enterprise and fiscal sanity as wholeheartedly as the right ever did.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

That was written before 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, Obamacare and many other events, but there is a central truth here: Democrats are still the left-wing party in America but the party is not cut from the same cloth as the Students for a Democratic Society were. Even President Obama knew to speak in support of fewer regulations on small business while he was on the campaign trail. (You can read about that in a report by the College Republicans on young voters.)

So the need for conservative reform is not new. Why has the reformist cause not yet succeeded? I suggest two areas where reformists need to consider being more proactive:

Conservative media: Some elements of conservative  media share the passions of reform, but at the moment, no one publication has made reform its main goal.

National Affairs is the current leading conservative journal where many reform ideas get written about. It is an excellent publication, yet for every article with good policy (such as a Scott Sumner discussing market monetarism), it also runs pieces that push for a gold standard. There is a difference between functioning as a forum for ideas that are debated and advancing ideas that need to be implemented.

The point is not to deny that there is value from hearing different points of view, but merely to ask whether reform would be more successful if it was part of an editorial mission.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Institutions: If you type "Democratic Leadership Council" into Google, you will read obituaries about the political organization that operated from 1985 to 2011. There is a lot of agreement on the role of the DLC in the Democratic Party: it modernized the party and acted as a forum for politicians who shared similar ideas to coordinate and network

What is most striking when reading these obituaries is the realization that the DLC was not a "non-partisan" think tank: it was an explicitly partisan group that had explicitly partisan goals. You need only read the critiques of the DLC in publications like The American Prospect to understand why the organization was so disliked on the left: it did not just argue policy, but also sought to target and isolate interest groups that had once controlled the agenda of the Democratic Party:

Disciplined and single-minded, working tirelessly to forge alliances between individual Democratic elected officials and business groups, zealously promoting the political fortunes of their stars, and publishing a dizzying array of white papers and policy proposals, the DLC has given strategic coherence to what otherwise would have remained an inchoate tendency within the party. It has become a forum within which like-minded pro-business Democrats can share ideas, endorse one another, and commiserate about the persistence of the Old Guard.

While consensus in a political movement is an admirable end-state to achieve, it may be the case that a more confrontational institution is necessary for reform to occur when reformists do not yet control the party agenda.

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