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A CRB discussion of Reform Conservatism

By: Ramesh Ponnuru, William Voegeli, Peter Wehner
April 16, 2015

In the Winter 2014/15 CRB, William Voegeli’s essay, “The Newest New Right,” examined the “reform conservative” movement. It paid particular attention to the reform conservative manifesto, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms For a Limited Government And a Thriving Middle Class, an ebook published in 2014 by the YG Network. Two of that book’s contributors, Peter Wehner and Ramesh Ponnuru, have agreed to discuss reform conservatism further with Voegeli in this edition of Upon Further Review. Mr. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, writes frequently for Commentary and other publications. Mr. Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a senior editor of National Review, and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Mr. Voegeli is a senior editor of CRB and author of, most recently, The Pity Party.


Peter Wehner: William Voegeli has written a typically thoughtful if somewhat critical essay on a group (of which I am a member) that has come to be known as reform conservatives.

Voegeli’s basic argument is that while reform conservatives may have some good policy ideas here and there, we’re in favor of “leashing rather than reforming government.” Reform conservatives “are going to try to win by playing a game liberals invented.” We focus too much on how government can improve rather than on whether government has a legitimate authority to address every need or concern.

Voegeli zeroes in on what he deems to be the fundamental flaw of reform conservatism in this paragraph:

What will be harder to overcome is some conservatives’ fears that the reform conservative project entails conceding more than the inescapable need for expertise in formulating and implementing public policies. If it concedes, instead, the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society to-do lists for government, and confines its critique of liberalism to the use of bad means for achieving good ends, many conservatives are going to go AWOL rather than fight for those circumscribed goals. Such defections would make it difficult for reform conservatism to be the path, or even a path, to making conservatism more electorally competitive. The core conservative argument to voters would become that our five-point proposals for dealing with this or that social need and concern are bounded, decentralized, and nimble, while liberals’ eight-point proposals are bloated, intrusive, and ineffective. Even if completely true, that declaration doesn’t rank with, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” when it comes to stirring conservatives’ blood.

In addressing these concerns, let’s start with what I consider to be Voegeli’s flawed premise. The agenda laid out by reform conservative in Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, hardly qualify as “circumscribed goals” and mere “tinkerings.”

I’d encourage people to read the document for themselves. What they will find is that the ideas contained in it—in the areas of health care, higher education, taxes, safety net programs, and the financial sector, among others—would amount to a far-reaching conservative reconstitution of government. The reforms are ambitious, systemic rather than marginal, and would inject choice and competition into government programs and empower people to address the problems they confront while moving away from centralized control. These proposals would, if they became law, substantially change for the better the relationship between the citizen and the state. 

The reforms we’re advocating, then, would reduce the size of government. But there’s more to it than that. In the words of Yuval Levin, one of the leaders of the reform conservative movement, “what’s proposed [in Room To Grow] is a much bolder conservative leap to the right than just cutting the level of federal spending. This is about reconceiving the role of government along the lines of the conservative vision of society.”

Now let me turn to Voegeli’s statement that conservatives should not concede “the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society to-do lists for government.” If by that he means conservatives should challenge the basic structures of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, then he and reform conservatives are fully aligned in their views. As I have already tried to suggest, reform conservatives go right at the heart of the way antiquated and often crushingly inefficient programs operate—for example, by moving from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan in health care as a means to create a consumer marketplace that will force providers to offer lower-cost options. To be clear, however: the goal is to reform the programs in order to save them for future generations.

But if Voegeli is arguing, as he seems to be, that the federal government ought to have no role in constructing a safety net below a dynamic market economy, then he and reform conservatives like me do have a fundamental disagreement. I reject the proposition that government in principle should not and in practice cannot play some role in providing security to people who are insecure and vulnerable.

Beyond that, if Voegeli believes that the New Deal and the Great Society are inherently illegitimate and conservatives ought to wage a full-scale, fundamental assault on them—that conservatives should proudly promise to uproot every last vestige of them—then he will destroy conservatism as a viable political movement. The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson summarized this political reality when he said, “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.”

There is plenty of evidence that Americans are unhappy with the performance of modern government; there is little evidence to suggest that they are unhappy with the aims of modern government. It is not as though the New Deal was snuck through by a crafty Franklin Roosevelt and has been resented by the American people ever since. Whether conservatives like it or not, the pillars of the New Deal and most of the Great Society have been strongly and consistently reaffirmed in election after election, both congressional and presidential. Since the New Deal, in fact, no national politician has been elected promising to undo it, including the conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

As Henry Olsen and I pointed out in this essay in Commentary magazine, many people are familiar with Reagan’s legendary “there you go again” rejoinder to Jimmy Carter in their debate in 1980—but what few of them realize is that it came in the context of an answer that made it clear that he was against doing away with Medicare—a program not from the New Deal but from the Great Society. Here’s how the exchange went:

Carter: Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare. Now, we have an opportunity to move toward…a national health insurance, important to the American people. Governor Reagan, again, typically is against such a proposal.

Reagan: There you go again. When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed. I was not opposing the principle of providing care for them. [Emphasis added.]

Once in office, Reagan never sought to eliminate Medicare or any other major entitlement program. The most Reagan attempted to do was early in his presidency, when he approved a plan to cut Social Security benefits for prospective early retirees—a plan that came under fierce attack and which Reagan soon scrapped. (In 1983 Reagan actually increased payroll taxes in order to shore up Social Security.)

It’s worth noting that while Reagan won two landslide elections, the person Voegeli did (twice) quote—Barry Goldwater—was obliterated in his 1964 race against Lyndon Johnson. So was his party. (In the wake of the election Democrats controlled 68 out of 100 Senate seats and 295 House seats v. 140 Republican seats.) This wasn’t just a political defeat; the Democratic majority that swept into power allowed President Johnson to implement the Great Society pretty much as he wanted. There was no check on the soaring ambitions of progressivism.

One of the main reasons for Goldwater’s defeat is that he was seen, in some respects unfairly, as questioning the legitimacy of the New Deal. As Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President 1964, “Out of the vast mass of his many statements and speeches, [Democrats] chose to hook and hang him on one issue: Social Security. Goldwater was general in his denunciation of big government; the Democrats chose a specific for response, and they could not have chosen better.” To reopen that fight today would be politically catastrophic for conservatives.

And for all the claims that Goldwater’s defeat set the stage for Ronald Reagan’s victory 16 years later, the truth is that Reagan ran a very different campaign than Goldwater, with far less rhetorical fervor. Don’t get me wrong; Reagan offered a bold and far-reaching governing agenda. But rather than celebrating extremism, Reagan succeeded in inoculating himself against the charge.

A final observation: It is one thing for conservatives to say that if we had the chance to do it over again we might re-design a particular program from scratch. But in terms of most entitlement programs, that moment was lost long ago, and conservatism properly understood takes into account historical circumstances. It does not seek to traumatize society by making dramatic breaks with certain settled assumptions and deeply entrenched habits and ways of life. When it deems change is necessary, as any conservative would have to see that bold and significant change now is, it pursues ways of making that change as desirable and palatable for the public as possible.

I have a good deal of respect for William Voegeli, but I do worry that his essay leans a bit too much in the direction of the politics of abstraction, metaphysics and wishful thinking; the belief that if only conservatives invoked the zeal and employed the rhetorical thunderbolts of Barry Goldwater, they would reclaim the presidency. In fact, doing so would end up doing tremendous damage to the conservative cause for which Mr. Voegeli is such an eloquent and able advocate.


Ramesh Ponnuru: In his characteristically measured and perceptive essay about “reform conservatism,” William Voegeli notes that at no point in Room to Grow does anyone write explicitly that “there are some Xs the government shouldn’t do at all: categories of needs and concerns that fall beyond the legitimate purview of government, no matter how adroitly or successfully it might address them.” I would have thought that the point was made implicitly throughout the book, and especially in the chapters by the book’s editors (Yuval Levin and me). I am happy to say explicitly here that I emphatically agree with those words, as I usually do with what Voegeli writes.

Let me suggest a reason that no such sentence appears. To my mind, “reform conservatism” largely consists of undertaking a practical task. Conservatism has generally excelled at propounding a philosophy of government, with great stress on government’s limits. It has not, especially in recent years, been as good at outlining an agenda that would be attractive to the public. Conservative politicians have not, by and large, presented an agenda that offered tangible advantages to many people or explained how it did so.

This is not a defect inherent to conservatism. Conservatives in the late 1970s and early 1980s made the case that the conservative agenda would make American life better for most people: reducing crime, providing tax relief, ending gas lines. This was not the whole of the conservative case. But it was a politically indispensable part of it.

It remains indispensable today. So it seems to me that conservatives should identify public concerns, think through how we can address those concerns by applying conservative insights, and then argue for the resulting agenda. We should shrink government—especially in the places, and the ways, where it would do the most good. And that, of course, depends on circumstances. Robert Stein’s chapter makes that point with respect to tax policy. In 1981, a 70 percent top tax rate badly needed to be brought down. Today the payroll tax and taxes on business investment are more pressing issues, the former because it imposes a heavier burden on middle-class families and the latter because they impede economic growth.

Occupational licensure and the college-accreditation oligopoly (to pick examples from Michael Strain’s and Andrew Kelly’s chapters) have both become bigger and bigger obstacles to opportunity. Overcoming those obstacles, through fairly straightforward conservative policies of deregulation, should therefore become conservative priorities.

If our agenda expanded the size and scope of the federal government, it would be very important to articulate a principled limit to how large and powerful we would allow it to get. (Although, come to think of it, people who really do have a government-expanding agenda have not done that, as Voegeli explained in depth in Never Enough.) Since our agenda does the reverse, however, it has not been as important.

And because it is a practical agenda, it need not specify whether we should ultimately seek a government as small as the one we had in 1911, 1931, or 1961. We can, instead, form a coalition of people who want a tiny government, people who want a much smaller government, and people who want a smaller but less destructive government—just as politically successful conservatives have done in the past. Some conservatives may think that the federal government has a legitimate and constructive role to play in helping promising low-income young adults attend college; some may think that it would be better if the federal government had no higher-education policy. Both groups ought to be able to agree that it would be better to have student-loan programs that did less to raise tuitions and restrict choices.

Most conservatives, Voegeli writes, are interested in “leashing rather than reforming government.” I am not sure this distinction holds up. Take health care, where the most alarming recent expansion of government has taken place. There is no significant force in American politics seeking an end to all federal involvement in health care. There is no caucus in the House that wants to end Medicare, Medicaid, the tax exclusion for employer-provided insurance, and the requirement that hospitals provide emergency care to all comers, and replace them with nothing. All existing conservative proposals can therefore be described as reforms of existing federal health policy.

The reforms suggested in James Capretta’s chapter, though, would also leash the government. Health care for the elderly would still be subsidized—but the federal government would no longer be in the business of trying to set prices throughout the health sector. The tax break for employer-provided coverage would continue—but no longer would the tax code so heavily favor it over individually-purchased insurance. Health insurance would still be regulated—but people would be free not to buy it, or to buy plans that suited their preferences rather than those of the Department of Health and Human Services. All of this would amount to a massive reduction in the federal role, even before accounting for how much less federal spending it would involve.

Voegeli cautions reform-minded conservatives against confining ourselves to critiquing liberals’ means rather than their ends. But these health-care policies do not amount merely to a different and better way of doing what Obamacare does. They are, to be sure, a different and better way of seeing to it that people can get affordable health insurance. But that isn’t the objectionable essence of Obamacare. It is a set of reforms that rejects altogether the goal of managing American health care from Washington, D.C., of telling people what they must buy and what business models they should follow.

Room to Grow has no chapter on immigration, and Voegeli notes that the authors have divergent views on the subject. He says as well that the tight labor markets stricter laws would bring about would do more to improve economic security than the ideas in the book. I suspect that increased enforcement of laws against illegal immigration, and a reduction in low-skilled legal immigration, would appreciably help people at the lowest end of the wage scale. I do not see the evidence that those policies would do a great deal for people in the middle of the middle class. I favor them, but they are not a substitute for an agenda along the lines of the one in Room to Grow.

Finally there is Voegeli’s claim that reform conservatism has “no obvious base of support” and may not be able to rouse conservative voters. Again, though, reform conservatism attempts to fill a gap within existing conservatism rather than to replace it. A reform-minded conservative, I hope, will run on a platform of replacing Obamacare with less intrusive health-care policies, appointing constitutionalist judges, changing tax law to promote growth and lower the burden on middle-class families, protecting the right to life, fostering energy development, strengthening the national defense, taking on the academic cartel, and changing immigration policy to favor the nuclear family, assimilation, and economic growth. I think that a conservative who did that might just find himself with enough support to form a center-right electoral majority.


William Voegeli: Readers who believe internet political discussion should be a full-contact sport are likely to leave this exchange disappointed. For one thing, I both appreciate and reciprocate Messrs. Wehner and Ponnuru’s generous words. I’ve not only enjoyed but learned a great deal from their writings.

More importantly, our disagreements on the substantive questions raised by Room to Grow are smaller than our agreements. The reform conservatives want what all conservatives want: proposals, arguments, rhetoric, and candidates that will help a conservative coalition to cohere, win elections, and govern successfully. The position I took on reform conservatism in the CRB essay may be described as that of a skeptical well-wisher. I want a majority coalition that strengthens and expands as conservative political and policy victories reinforce one another. The reform conservatives deserve great credit for their serious, thoughtful suggestions about how to bring conservatism closer to that goal. Other approaches are possible, but I’m not aware of a superior alternative out there that is currently available. With the Republican presidential nominee having (barely) secured just one popular majority in the past six elections, conservatives do not have the luxury of backing second-best candidates or advancing second-best proposals.

Ramesh Ponnuru reminds us of the caution and modesty of the reform conservative enterprise when he says it exists “to fill a gap within existing conservatism rather than to replace it.” Reform conservatives may yet come to define the gap they need to fill more ambitiously, but it is worth noting that Room to Grow has no chapters on international affairs and national security; or on contentious social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana’s legal status. The chapters devoted to subjects such as energy and financial regulation all take pains to connect their recommendations to making it easier for Americans to join, and more confident about remaining in, the middle class. Such arguments emphasize the central theme announced in the book’s subtitle—a thriving middle class—and elaborated in Peter Wehner’s introductory chapter.

It can be fairly said, then, that reform conservatives have chosen to concentrate their initial efforts on providing a rationale and policy substance for the “conservative welfare state” Irving Kristol advocated on many occasions. He wrote in 1993 that the practical consequence of the fact that “the welfare state is with us, for better or worse,” is that “conservatives should try to make it better rather than worse.” Making the welfare state better, he explained, meant rendering it “consistent with the basic moral principles of our civilization and the basic political principles of our nation.” Unless I’ve badly misread Room to Grow—especially Ponnuru’s chapter on “Recovering the Wisdom of the Constitution” and Yuval Levin’s on a “Conservative Governing Vision”—the reform conservatives may be said to have taken up the challenge Kristol presented.

It’s possible to find even more strenuous assertions of Kristol’s thesis. For example:

The 1936 election [ratifying the New Deal] is not going to be reversed, and the time and energy conservatives devote to that unattainable goal is time and energy they divert from valuable changes they actually could effect. Conservatives, in other words, need to take the position that America is going to have a welfare state, should have a welfare state, and it’s not part of the conservative project to bring about the disappearance of the welfare state, even in the distant future.

That passage came to mind because…I wrote it, five years ago, in Never Enough. Among the reasons I cite it is to plead not guilty to Wehner’s charge that I’m the sort of conservative who believes that “if only conservatives invoked the zeal and employed the rhetorical thunderbolts of Barry Goldwater, they would reclaim the presidency.”

Even though there appear to be no conservatives in this discussion who believe “conservative welfare state” is a blasphemous contradiction in terms, there are many such conservatives in the country. As a practical matter, they must be accounted for. I contended in the CRB essay that started this conversation that the political test for reform conservatism is whether it produces a net increase in the conservative coalition. You can’t please everybody, and there are no risk-free paths forward. (For conservatives to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, and saying what we’ve been saying, may be the riskiest course of all.) But if reform conservatism is to strengthen and expand the conservative coalition, rather than fracture it, those conservatives primarily concerned with fighting Big Government must be persuaded that reform conservatism is not just me-too, Rockefeller Republicanism.

If it were simply the case that libertarian and Tea Party conservatism had a constituency, then propitiating them would be a matter solely of practical politics. But the most determined opponents of Big Government have, in addition, a valid point, responding to which is also a moral necessity. It is that the political success of the New Deal and Great Society has brought about, as James Q. Wilson argued in 1979, the collapse of the “legitimacy barrier.” That is, “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything…. Since there is virtually nothing the government has not tried to do, there is little it cannot be asked to do.” The New Deal anthem was “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but the song that captured its philosophy about both the ends and means of government was “Anything Goes.”

There are precincts of the conservative coalition where people insist that the only legitimacy barriers worth fighting for are the ones the president and Congress began dismantling in 1933, with the help of the Supreme Court after 1937. For the reasons Wehner lays out here, clinging to this position looks like a way to win every Cato Institute board meeting, and lose every general election. 1932 was a long time ago, and history is not going to give us a blank sheet of paper to write on.

But if rebuilding America’s legitimacy barriers in their 1932 locations is a quixotic mission, rebuilding them somewhere is a practical and moral imperative: it’s unimaginable that a conservative coalition not committed to this goal can cohere, win, or justify its existence. That is why I posed the question in my essay of whether there are some problems the reform conservatives don’t want government to address at all. I didn’t really doubt it, and I’m glad that Ponnuru has made explicit a point implicit in Room to Grow.

What’s explicit enough for me, however, may not necessarily be explicit enough to unify and energize the conservative coalition. Ponnuru says here that the reform conservatives are providing a “practical agenda” rather than “propounding a philosophy of government,” an emphasis required because conservatives ordinarily attend more to the latter than the former. As he portrays it, the reform conservatives’ elevation of practice over theory has the benefit of strategic ambiguity: we “need not specify whether we should ultimately seek” the legitimacy barriers of 1911, 1931, or 1961. Adherents of all those positions, it seems, can find reasons to embrace the reform conservative agenda.

If it works, I’ll be the first to applaud…but also more than a little surprised. The obstacle is that conservatives not only have different thoughts than liberals, but a different way of thinking. Conservatives are notably partial to deductive reasoning, liberals to inductive reasoning. As political scientist James Ceaser observed in 2006, conservatives pay so much attention to theoretical principles because they believe them “directly related to the political world and to how it should be governed.” It’s not enough for a policy prescription to solve a problem; it must also comport with a theory of justice that clarifies what constitutes a problem, and what constitutes a solution.

The liberal preference is to address the practical challenge first, then to cobble together a theory justifying the chosen approach later … if ever. As one of the leading liberal polemicists, Jonathan Chait, argued nine years ago, because “everything works on a case-by-case basis” for liberals “you cannot, and should not, formulate sweeping dogmas.” Or, in the words of the prominent leftist theoretician Richard Rorty, “The idea that liberal societies are bound together by philosophical beliefs seems to me to be ludicrous…philosophy is not that important for politics.”

To find favor in a distinctively conservative audience, reform conservatism will have to either offer a theory that compellingly rationalizes its various policy proposals, or to persuade conservatives to operate inductively for a while: win some elections, enact some initiatives, and sort out the theory down the road. For reform conservatism “to fill a gap within existing conservatism rather than to replace it” sounds prudent. But filling that gap by delineating the operation of a conservative welfare state may inevitably entail reforming, and thereby altering, conservatism itself.