The Three Roadblocks To a Reality-Based Conservatism

Bill Scher

A small outbreak of sanity has emerged within the conservative movement, with commentators respected among the Right acknowledging that conservatism is failing to speak to today’s problems and today’s people. This group is suggesting some recalibration and even some breaking from Republican orthodoxy.

Granted, this is more an ember than a spark. Most of the Republican Party doesn’t seem to have taken the first step and admitted they have a problem.

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat, after praising some of the ideas from the band of conservative reformers, notes that “the Republican Party’s rising stars clearly prefer to adopt the rhetoric suggested by conservative policy thinkers without embracing much if any of the substance … politicians who talk up ‘libertarian populism’ or ‘opportunity conservatism’ … then end by calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment, hard money and a flat tax aren’t actually reforming the Republican Party; they’re just wrapping losing ideas in slightly smarter rhetoric…”.

But that still leaves open the question, have these conservative reformers found any winning ideas yet?

Let’s review what they’ve come up with so far:

Ramesh Ponnuru’s New York Times op-ed, “Reaganism After Reagan,” proposes the following:

* Give up on lowering top bracket income tax rates any more, since Reagan already got them down from 70%. Since “the payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people,” cut that instead. Expand the child tax credit too.

* Focus on lowering health care costs. Give people with employer-based health coverage a tax refund if they choose a cheaper, stingier health plan.

* Shift deregulation efforts toward ending software patents.

American Enterprise Institute’s James Pethokoukis and the National Review’s Reihan Salam soon after echoed Ponnuru on taxes. Pethokoukis argues that “high corporate tax rates” and “investment taxes” are more pressing than lower income tax rates, and he urges conservatives to give up the flat tax. And Salam builds on Ponnuru’s call for an expanded child-tax credit by saying it should paid for by eliminating “tax expenditures” like the state and local tax deduction and the mortgage interest tax deductions.

In Commentary’s “How To Save The Republican Party,” Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner offer fewer specific policy prescriptions than Ponnuru, but more broad brush breaks from current orthodoxy: “ending corporate welfare as we know it”, “supporting the breakup of the big banks [to] encourage competition”, acknowledging the reality of climate science and envisioning a government that “shares some responsibility” for providing “equality of opportunity.”

Does all this amount to real resurgence in conservative ideas? Do we have a reinvigorated 21st century conservatism ready to address 21st century problems?

Not exactly.

There are three big problems facing conservatism that the above litany doesn’t yet solve.

1. The Allergy to Specifics

Over at Bloomberg, Josh Barro knocked Gerson, Wehner and Ponnuru for failing to get serious about how much revenue we need to raise, a criticism that also applies to Pethokoukis:

Ponnuru allows that the rest of his agenda would require Republicans to abandon the goal of a 25 percent top tax rate. Gerson and Wehner say that Republicans should continue to promote “reasonable” tax rates; they don’t define “reasonable.” This is all too vague; a key driver of Republicans’ unpalatable economic agenda is the need to make room in the budget for a low top tax rate. To figure out how much room there is for Republicans to stop proposing anti-middle-class policies, we need to know how far they will scale back their commitment to lower taxes on the rich. I don’t think that math can add up.

Salam proposal to pay for an expanded child tax credit with eliminating “tax expenditures” is a little more specific, but he doesn’t specify how such a tax shift would actually benefit the middle class since, at least for some, what is gained by a bigger child tax credit will be negated by lost tax expenditures.

2. The Unwillingness to Accept Reality

What’s refreshing about the above pieces is there is more acknowledgement of reality than you get from a Paul Ryan or a Rush Limbaugh. Yet the acceptance of reality is still highly selective.

For example, Ponnuru urges conservatives to focus on health care costs, which is a sensible because anyone serious about reducing budget deficits knows that health care costs are the main obstacle.

But Ponnuru fails to note that ObamaCare includes, in the words of Brookings Institution’s Henry Aaron, “virtually every cost control idea anyone has come up with.”

Nor does Ponnuru call out Republicans for actively trying to repeal one of ObamaCare’s major cost-control provisions, the “Independent Payment Advisory Board” based on the outright falsehood that the board will ration care, something it is legally prohibited from doing.

This is probably because Ponnuru is on record asserting the same falsehood.

Gerson and Wehner sound brave by challenging conservatives to accept climate science. But then they follow by recycling the Solyndra smear:

To acknowledge climate disruption need hardly lead one to embrace Al Gore’s policy agenda … Republicans could back an entrepreneurial approach to technical and scientific investment as opposed to the top-down approach of unwieldy government bureaucracies offering huge subsidies to favored companies such as Solyndra. (See above, under “corporate welfare.”)

But Solyndra is not an example of corporate welfare. Welfare recipients, if they don’t become self-sufficient, stay on welfare. Federally subsidized oil companies don’t go bankrupt. Solyndra just got a loan, not a welfare check. And so it could go bankrupt.

And Solyndra was not a “favored company” getting a sweetheart deal. It was not a lucky recipient in a game of government “picking winners and losers.” Micheal Grunwald explained the real underpinning of the Obama administration’s clean energy strategy in the book “The New New Deal”:

…as [energy “stimulus czar” Matt] Rogers liked to say, the [Energy] department wasn’t really picking winners and losers. It was picking the game: clean energy. So it wouldn’t just support one advanced battery maker; it would support thirty promising firms in the battery space, all with unique technological and entrepreneurial approaches. And it wouldn’t assume that advanced batteries and electric vehicles were the only path to green transportation; it would also support a variety of advanced biofuels, and several strategies to promote more fuel-efficient combustion of fossil fuels … Then the market would sort out the winners and losers … the department focused on technologies that seemed to be on the cusp of a breakthrough, and let the various companies in its portfolio fight amongst themselves.

Conservatives are still free to criticize the President’s green energy record if they wish. But they can’t credibly claim to want “an entrepreneurial approach to technical and scientific investment” and then smear a program that was exactly that.

3. The Fear Of Taking Responsibility for Bush

But the big elephant in the Republican room is the name none of the above conservative reforms can stand to mention: Bush.

The hard reality for conservatives is that the George W. Bush presidency was an eight-year test case for conservatism that ended in colossal failure. But since then, conservatives have tried to pretend Bush wasn’t a real conservative, instead of taking responsibility, learning lessons and making adjustments.

The Bush tax cuts led to the worst jobs record on record. The Bush approach to financial regulation led to the biggest market crash since the Great Depression. The Bush approach to government operations led to one the worst disaster responses in modern history.

None of these truths has to mean that conservatism is beyond hope. But it certainly means that conservatism in its most simplistic form brings calamity.

Conservatives will eventually need to show they learned from those awful years, and have new conservative policies that will not repeat those same mistakes. Nothing we’ve seen so far shows conservatives are ready to take that step.

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