Why reform conservatives should join the Democratic Party
Their policy preferences would find a much more natural fit as center-right Democratic proposals than far-left Republican ones
Whither the reformicons?
That was the question raised recently by Thomas Edsall in The New York Times and Bob Davis in The Wall Street Journal, who pointed to the movement's middle- and working-class focus as a break with the Republicans' traditional interest in elite tax-cutting. Yuval Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Reihan Salam pushed back, saying no, the reformicons really do fit squarely in traditional conservatism. The latest round in this back-and-forth occurred between The Week's own Shikha Dalmia and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.
I think a lot of the confusion stems from the assumption that we're dealing with Big Ideas — "civil society" versus "technocratic centralization" or "conservatism" versus "liberalism." But politics isn't about Big Ideas. It's about coalitions and the power to get things done. What makes the reformicons so weird is they insist on being loyal to a political coalition that is uniquely hostile to, and disinterested in, their policy preferences. As Elias Isquith put it, they have no actual voter base.
In short, the reformicons need to join the Democratic Party.
Take the matter of tax credits, arguably the centerpiece of the reformicon agenda. They'd like to bulk up the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC) to give an added boost to the wages of low-income workers, and pump more support to families. But that means less revenue, and the GOP is adamantly opposed to more deficit spending or new tax hikes.
So where's the money gonna come from? Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wisc.) poverty plan would've cut other welfare programs to pay for an EITC expansion. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) would increase the EITC for childless workers by decreasing it for workers with children. Both proposals would take from low-income workers and families with one hand even as they give to them with the other.
You could close other tax breaks, like the mortgage interest deduction. But there's so much money to be found there because the deduction gets more valuable as you go up the income ladder. The upper class and the wealthy will defend it jealously, and their political grip on the Republicans is far more solid than their grip on the Democrats.
This is also why Sen. Mike Lee's (R-Utah) much ballyhooed expansion of the CTC doesn't bother with refundability — the key to making any tax credit useful for low-income American — and functions primarily as another tax break for the middle and upper classes.
As Ross Douthat, the Times' resident reformicon, acknowledged, the GOP base considers refundable tax credits of any sort to already be a centrist compromise. These are the people who think that poor people are poor because of their own failings and that they're being coddled by the social safety net. That's why Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" comment resonated with Republicans, and why it spells doom for the reformicons: 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax precisely because of the sort of tax breaks for workers and families reformicons want to utilize.
Look at it this way: even Salam's idea of "progressivity-neutral" tax reform constitutes the far left edge of what the GOP's coalition of voters will tolerate, after you've overcome all their natural instincts and interests.
The Democratic Party, by contrast, is already on the record supporting increases in the EITC and the CTC. Their voters do not think the poor are their own worst enemy, or that they're coddled by government. They will be friendlier to the multiple different ways of paying for the credits. In short, the Democrats' coalition provides the reformicons with a menu of different possible policy alliances and compromises that the GOP simply does not.
This dynamic plays out again and again across different issues.
The standard Republican desire to get tax cuts on capital gains and on corporate income is never going to fly. But the key to encouraging growth isn't cutting all these taxes willy-nilly, it's strategizing how you pitch them against one another. There are plenty of corporate elites and neoliberals in the Democratic Party who would be up for cutting either capital gains or corporate income taxes, while keeping the other up. Working with Democrats would be far easier than squeezing the same nuances out of rigidly anti-tax Republicans.
Ponnuru has pushed for conservatives to embrace aggressive monetary stimulus to boost the economy, but every mainstream GOP politician has condemned exactly that policy. Why? Because the Republican coalition has little interest in keeping unemployment down, but plenty of interest in keeping inflation low and labor costs cheap.
Michael R. Strain wants big new programs to give Americans money to relocate where employment is high, and to subsidize businesses to keep on workers with reduced hours, rather than letting them go when the economy slows down. Again, where exactly does he think he's going to find the money?
You get the idea. Pushing changes through the legislature and past the presidential veto pen requires log-rolling and compromises, which gets to the bedrock problem: the reformicons have nothing to offer other Republican constituencies. From the standpoint of a well-heeled evangelical or an oil business professional or a Wall Street trader, reformicon proposals are all costs, no benefits. In their current home, the reformicons have no room to maneuver.
In the Democrats' coalition, however, they would put a work-and-family twist on a set of policy priorities already friendly to moving resources down the economic food chain, while encouraging the party to deal more magnanimously with the culture war's imminent losers. In both regards, they would likely expand the party's voter appeal.
If the reformicons are serious about their priorities, they need to jump ship.