Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a roundtable of journalists and policy thinkers associated with a nascent movement that is being called "reform conservatism," which seeks to rescue the GOP from its current status as the Party of No Ideas. Many of the big names of the movement were present: Peter Wehner, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Yuval Levin.
Their new manifesto boasts several fairly good ideas, but it's mostly small beer and actually less bold than some of their previous work. Most critically, it merely fiddles around the edges when it comes to economic policy, which has always been the biggest weakness in an outdated conservative platform that can be boiled down to lower taxes and lower spending. Making getting a job easier by reducing occupational licensing, for example, might be a great idea. But it doesn't touch the problem of mass unemployment, where there just aren't enough jobs due to deep structural factors. Austerity and hard money killed Herbert Hoover's presidency, and it's killing the Republican Party now.
I suspect that many of the reformers are quite aware of these weaknesses, and are trying to push the party discussion as far as they dare without being exiled as RINO traitors. As Jonathan Chait and Simon Maloy point out, their biggest problem as a movement is the Republican Party itself, which has zero interest in genuine reform.
In fact, the movement's greatest ally could lie outside the party altogether: a liberal faction dragging the Democratic Party to the left. Such a development would not only strengthen a Democratic Party that has been spread perilously thin, but create space for non-nutty Republicans to rejoin a serious debate about the country's future.
One of the biggest problems of the Obama era has been the moderation of the Democratic Party. Obama has repeatedly put his desire to be seen as a bipartisan figure above being right on the substance, and took a bizarrely long time to figure out that he was never going to get a Grand Bargain on the budget. Only Tea Party intransigence saved Social Security from pointless cuts.
And all his effort was for naught. In a replay of the Clinton years, a Democratic president inspired a crazed reactionary backlash from the right wing. Everything Obama says, does, or agrees with has become anathema to the GOP. With a few exceptions, one simply cannot agree with Obama and remain a Republican in good standing.
The trouble is that Obama is, in reality, quite a moderate figure. In today's warped context he's definitely on the left, but substantively he's to the right of Nixon in many areas. Coupled with his near pathological desire for bipartisan compromise — especially in his first term, his entire political schtick was based on a fantasy of moving past partisanship — and Obama has effectively tainted the entire spectrum of sane policy for Republicans.
Monetary policy is the exception that proves the rule. Obama is comparatively uninterested in it, and Scott Sumner has spent the last six years proving that you can support monetary stimulus and still be a conservative who hates Paul Krugman. That makes it easier for conservative reformists like Ramesh Ponnuru to support it as well.
In other words, if a revitalized Left could drag the Democrats a few notches to their side (away from what amounts to Eisenhower conservatism), it might free up space on the ideological spectrum for conservatives to move to the center and still remain firmly anti-Democratic.
Furthermore, it will allow Democrats to occupy a distinct ideological space. That might annoy the hoary Washington punditry, but it will make the choice clearer for the American people.