Conservative reform smoke, continued

In the last few days since posting “There is conservative reformist smoke, but no fire,” on the issue of whether there is a genuine conservative reform movement, the conversation has continued with contributions from Jim ManziReihan SalamAvik RoyEzra KleinPaul Krugman, and James Poulos. Many of these are reactions to Mike Konczal’s piece, the main reference for my argument last week, and are all worth reading if you’re interested.

Today Ezra writes again, in response to Roy’s claim that the reform in question isn’t so much about policy but principle, that such an admission necessarily indicates that their efforts are more style than substance:

Roy largely admits this. In the end, he indicates that the difference here is more messaging than it is substance. “It is of considerable importance that conservative reformers emphasize opportunity, especially for the poor and the lower-middle-class,” he says. “It may not lead these reformers to disagree with other conservatives on specific policy remedies, but it does lead reformers to elevate a certain portion of the conservative policy menu to the fore.”

That “conservative policy menu” is, of course, not all that different from Paul Ryan’s budget, a point Ezra uses in his argument’s favor and the basic premise of Konczal’s starting point. The primary disagreement between these folks and the mainstream right isn’t “What do we do,” but “How do we sell it?”

In Roy’s case it amounts to tacking on “[will help] poor and the lower-middle-class” to preexisting policy preferences. Manzi makes a pretty unconvincing case that he disagrees with Konczal’s list of standard conservative policy proposals. Reihan thoughtfully posits that, of course, conservative reform pushes are conservative, therefore not really all that different from the mainstream ideological core. James Poulos makes the best case for disagreement so far, yet still falls far short by identifying ‘limited government’ as an operating principle of reform. That would have been particularly reformish during the Bush administration, but trying to find a conservative politician who hasn’t voted for ‘limited government’ policy today would be as difficult as finding a star in the clear nighttime sky of western Kansas. So if it seems like Roy and the others are writing many sentences to the effect of “I disagree with Konczal, but here’s why he’s right” it is because that’s what they are doing.

That being said, it’s easy to imagine a counter-factual today with President Romney and a Republican Congress limiting their efforts to restrict the size and scope of the federal government in the face of political pragmatism. In that alternative universe perhaps this debate would have more teeth in favor of the reformists, but the general policy direction would still be to their liking.

The reality today is that whatever substantive policy reform exists on the right it’s coming from libertarians, not conservatives, and is mostly centered on defense and crony capitalism. In every other category there is enthusiastic agreement between all segments of the right that the best national policy course is for the federal government to do less for the poor, elderly, and the environment. In other words, for the federal government to do less, period. What we’re seeing is a lot of disagreement over the window-dressing on that vision, or the nature of what rhetorical smoke to blow towards voters, but the basic philosophical imperative to shrink government remains.

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