Opinion

Conservative reformers haven't been defeated. They're just biding their time.

The death of the reformocons has been greatly exaggerated

President Obama comfortably won reelection in 2012 despite high unemployment and a weak economy for one simple reason: Voters didn't trust Republicans.

Too many believed Democrats when they said the GOP was the party of the 1 percent. By nearly 20 points, according to exit polls, Americans said Romneynomics would favor the rich over the middle class. Among those voters who most valued empathy in their president, Romney lost by more than 60 points. He couldn't have done much worse had he been an actual automaton.

But the GOP's problem was more its message than its private-equity multimillionaire messenger. Talk of heroic entrepreneurs and tax cuts for "job creators" fell flat with America's struggling middle class and poor. And the substance of GOP economic policy often seemed more relevant to the challenges of the 1980s and 1990s than the second decade of the 2000s. So in response, a bunch of center-right policy experts have been developing an updated policy agenda for Republicans on everything from taxes to health care to education to poverty. (Democrats can steal these, too, of course!)

But maybe these reformers should give up. Conservative policy wonks have utterly failed in their effort to modernize the GOP economic message, says The Week's Ryan Cooper in "The final defeat of the reformocons."

Cooper defines the core "reformocon" message as one of immigration reform, middle-class tax relief, and support for the Bernanke-Yellen approach to monetary policy. He then compares that agenda to what he heard at the recent Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox Business. One moment front-runner Donald Trump was defending his mass deportation plan, the next had Ted Cruz touting the gold standard. And all the candidates promised big tax cuts with big gains for the richest Americans. "Reformocon" ideas, Cooper concludes, "have been stamped into the dirt, soaked in kerosene, and set ablaze."

But Cooper's pessimistic take is unwarranted. (I am, by the way, one of the conservative reformers Cooper mentions in his piece.) For starters, I would characterize the core conservative reform agenda as one that attempts to address the real-world problems of today's middle-class Americans, including stagnant incomes and rising health care and higher education costs. And when I look at the policy agendas of the various candidates, I see a lot of that stuff in there. Both Marco Rubio — the GOPer most likely to be the Republican nominee, according to prediction markets — and Jeb Bush offer thoughtful plans to boost take-home pay for working class Americans and provide an alternative to ObamaCare beyond a return to the status quo. Rubio also has a comprehensive plan to make college more affordable and provide greater value to students.

Do I wish the candidates would talk more about education and health care? Sure. And I would guess the eventual GOP nominee will in the general election. Likewise, I would guess that Hillary Clinton will talk more about economic growth and business tax reform when she gets out of the Democratic primaries. Different issues resonate with party diehards, and candidates respond accordingly.

Now, as Cooper notes, all the GOP candidates would deeply cut taxes for the rich. Way, way too much, in my opinion. And that's a big reason their plans bleed so much red ink. Lowering income tax rates for wealthier Americans loses lots of money but doesn't generate much growth. So that's an example of the continuing strength of old-school Republican economic orthodoxy. But even so, there are signs of change. Rubio, for instance, would only cut top income tax rates by a few points. And Ted Cruz actually proposes a value-added tax, something that's been anathema to many on the right.

In any event, it often takes a while for political parties to evolve and modernize. It took three straight presidential election losses for Democrats before "New Democrat" Bill Clinton won the nomination and became president. In Great Britain, the Conservative Party also lost three straight times before revamping and winning with David Cameron. Beyond politics, the macroforces shaping the U.S. economy, including globalization and automation, also demand updated thinking by policymakers in both parties. So I'm patient.

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