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There’s No Reform In “Reform Conservatism”

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Krugman recently:

Sam Tanenhaus asks, “Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?”

Why, no. This is another edition of simple answers to simple questions.

More specifically, the “reform conservatives” seem mainly to be offering supposedly new ideas for the sake of being seen to offer new ideas. And there isn’t much there there; can you find anything in the Tanenhaus piece that sounds like an important new idea rather than a minor tweak on the current conservative catechism? I can’t. I mean, converting federal poverty programs into bloc grants is supposed to be a major departure?

But don’t take his word for it; take reform conservative Ross Douthat:

I think both writers raise useful points, but also possibly exaggerate the discontinuity between Ryanism and the reformist tendency. Chait and I have gone so many rounds on the True Nature of Paul Ryan over the years that I don’t think it’s worth re-litigating those issues; I’ll just say that from the point of view of conservative reformers, the Ryan who matters (and yes, like all politicians he contains multitudes) has always been the Ryan who did more than any other Obama-era politician to save the G.O.P. from policy unseriousness (and often tried to do still more), rather than a Randian Ryan or an apocalyptic Ryan or any other interpretation of his record Chait prefers. And in this sense, many aspects of Ryanism are pretty clearly foundational for reformers: The wisdom of his basic vision for Medicare reform is taken for granted by most people in our camp (and, happily, by most prominent Republicans), his 2009 alternative to Obamacare, which failed to win over the party at the time, looks a lot like the health care alternative proposed in the recent Room to Grow compendium, and the broad goal of his famous budgets — reforming the welfare state in order to keep the federal government’s share of the economy within its post-World War II bounds — is a broad reformocon goal as well.

Douthat seems to be making this argument in order to argue that Ryan is essentially a serious moderate reform Republican like himself. (Chait has great fun with this, noting that Ryan’s Randite fanaticism is entirely unambiguous.) But what it actually accomplishes is to demonstrate that the “reform conservatives” are also Ryan-style ultrareactionaries. Let’s consider the three major points of agreement Douthat cites. Are they “new” ideas? Are they moderate in any way?

  • The plan to “reform” Medicare by ending it and replacing it with vouchers of decreasing value is a radical change that would have devastating effects on the non-affluent.  Is this a new idea?  Nope — the foundational contemporary conservatives have always yearned to destroy Medicare.  Is it in any way politically moderate?  No; indeed, the idea is so politically toxic that Ryan mounted a campaign to have accurate Democratic characterizations of the plan declared “lies.”
  • The alternative to the ACA advocated by Ryan and shared by the reformers is nothing but bog-standard “let them eat free markets and states’ rights” stuff.  The repeal of the Medicaid expansion it shares with all Republican health care plans would wreak devastation on America’s non-affluent.   It would cause many people to lose their employer-provided insurance, with the almost certainly vain hope that tax credits would be sufficient for most of these people to buy insurance on lightly regulated state exchanges pursuing a race to the bottom.  In other words, while the ACA has already made substantial strides in reducing the number of uninsured, Ryan’s “reforms” would cause the number of uninsured to explode, with much accompanying misery and suffering for those less advantageously situated than Ryan and Douthat. There’s nothing remotely “new” about the idea that if the non-affluent don’t have health care, sucks to be them.  And if you think the relative unpopularity of the ACA means that repealing guaranteed issue and the ACA’s subsidies would be popular, I have many copies of Ayn Rand’s Marginalia to sell you for the low, low price of $10,000 each.
  • Cutting the welfare state to meet arbitrary spending targets is about as old, and as bad, as American conservative ideas get.

The only difference that I can tell between Ryan old-school reactionary radicals and the “reformers” is that “reform” conservatives want to focus tax cuts on middle-class families while Ryan wants to focus on the very wealthy.  Otherwise, the differences are superficial — in his budgets Ryan is forced to make it clear that hitting arbitrary federal spending targets while maintaining Social Security, not cutting defense, and cutting taxes would require either massive George W. Bush-style deficits or the elimination of most discretionary federal spending.  Douthat claims to not want to finance everything with borrowing a la Bush and also claims not to want to take a meat axe to the non-discretionary parts of the federal budget, but how exactly this would work is unexplained.  It could involve just ending Social Security, but there’s nothing “reform” (or politically viable) about that.

In conclusion, I re-propose that Republican “reformers” be called “Taco Bell conservatives.

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