Reformicons Set on Renewing and Reforming the Conservative Movement

John Hudak and MaryCate Most

“A conservatism that says, at least maybe we can use government to solve social problems is better than a conservatism that says we can never use government to solve social problems,” Brookings Senior Fellow E.J. Dionne said today during a panel discussion on the growth of a reform conservative movement, who Dionne nicknamed The Reformicons. Dionne was joined by Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review and Michael R. Strain of AEI.

The panelists discussed the future of the reform conservative movement, noting the increased focus the Reformicons put on lower and lower-middle class Americans.

“We are extremely concerned with the plight of the lower-middle class. It is not simply or even primarily a political calculation. It is the idea that these are Americans,” Olsen said.

Olsen, Ponnuru and Strain emphasized the importance of limiting the identification between Republicans and the upper class, making clear that the “vision” shared by conservatives is not just a vision for the wealthiest Americans, but for all citizens. Ponnuru specifically mentioned Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s statement that President Obama won the election because of the “gifts” he had to offer Americans.

“Conservatism cannot be a successful political movement if it makes a virtue of the fact that it doesn’t do anything for anybody,” Ponnuru said. “What conservatism really needs is a sort of bread and butter agenda… the conservative agenda needs to be updated and broadened to take account of a larger range of issues than just the familiar ones of the regulation of business and high marginal income tax rates.”

Strain listed several of the items that reform conservatives hope to push on their agenda: reforming disability insurance, encouraging domestic energy and the job development within the energy industry, expanding earned income tax credit, relocation systems to the long-term unemployed, allowing firms to hire long-term unemployed with less than the current minimum wage and supplementing their income with a tax subsidy. These reforms, as well as a number of others are described in detail in the YG Network’s new essay, “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.”

“None of this makes us liberals, or even moderates,” Ponnuru said. “It doesn’t even make us anti-Tea Party. Let me just suggest that even though we are not liberals and some of us may not even like liberals, this project helps the prospects of an eventual bipartisan breakthrough in American politics simply by making conservatism a little more policy focused than it has been in recent years.”

Dionne responded to fellow panelists’ presentations by mentioning his concern that the reform conservative movement will not bring about any change in the current conservative mindset, but merely package their ideas differently.

“There are reformers who hint at nudging the Republicans and conservatives to the left of where they are now and see the importance of shedding radical anti-government rhetoric, but other Reformicons seem more interested in wrapping the same old libertarian small government view in warm language about civil society and relying on local communities to solve problems,” he said.

Dionne stated that for the reform conservative movement to be successful, they must prove that they are more than just a new “marketing campaign” and genuinely intend to push conservatism in a “better direction,” creating more vibrant debate.