It seems to me that the self-styled reformist conservatives have made some tactical errors that make it less likely that their project will succeed. The first and most obvious is allowing their least conservative members to serve as their most prominent spokesman, though I suppose Uval Levin or Ross Douthat can’t help the fact that the New York Times op-ed page is still a bigger platform than even National Review or a blog hosted by the Atlantic. Relatedly, they have allowed reformist conservatism to be set in opposition to most actual conservatives, which may well doom its prospects for gaining any adherents on the right. Condescension seldom wins converts.
The biggest blunder in this area, in my view, was suggesting that reformist conservatism was an improvement over Reaganism. If it is actually conservatism and not a revived Rockefeller Republicanism or David Cameron-style Toryism (or David Brooksism), then Reaganism ought to be the best example of what these reformists are trying to accomplish: taking conservatism away from the realm of abstraction or Goldwaterite exhortations to eat your vegetables and applying it to the pressing concerns of the electorate. Reagan wasn’t as pure a small-government man as Goldwater, but neither did he completely abandon limited government while trying to serve middle-class economic interests. Instead, he won policy victories on behalf of limited government in certain areas by tying those principles to the real needs of the American people.
That is, if the reformist conservatives want to succeed they need to formulate a Reaganism for our times. I say this not because I’m sympathetic to the big-government conservatism of many reformists. But I do believe that conservative principles have to be applied to issues like health care or economic anxieties in intelligent ways if the country is to stop electing Obamas. The key is to come up with policies that are both solutions and conservative in some meaningful sense.
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