At an event at the American Enterprise Institute recognizing the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) joined AEI president Arthur Brooks for a discussion about conservative reform. It was a remarkable departure from the anti-government rhetoric that has characterized many insurgents on the far right and the Washington groups that make money off intra-party fights.
The entire panel can be viewed in its entirety, together with later speakers, but there are a few points worth highlighting.
As Cantor put it:
[S]o reform conservatism, to me, is about applying the conservative principles of individual freedom, of personal responsibility, and of making sure we peel back the reach of government to create more space for those working middle class people in America, for the bulk of Americans, to see a better life. And apply those principles to the actual solutions. . . . I think the reform conservative movement, the solutions that come out of great thinkers like Senators Mike Lee and Tim Scott, and those scholars here at AEI can be so beneficial.
In the House, we’ve been about an agenda called An America That Works, and I was here 14 months ago, giving a talk entitled ‘Making Life Work.’ This is about helping people. This is about encouraging them, making it easier for people to pursue the happiness that was the vision of the Founders of our country. That agenda in the House is very much focused on building on the kinds of reforms that Tim Scott has been talking about on education and secondary schools; the kinds of reforms that Mike Lee has been talking about in higher education reform. I view my job as Majority Leader to help guide these kinds of ideas through the legislative process.
Part of that agenda is removing government — lifting regulations that deter people from working and that pose a barrier to success, for example. But much of this is an affirmative, positive agenda including school choice, a larger child tax credit and improved access to technical training. This is not the language of “free markets lift all boats,” but of helping the poor grab a boat and enjoy “earned success.” (Although the panel did not touch on it, Brooks and others have stressed the earned income tax credit, which assures that anyone working will have a guaranteed level of income.)
Reform conservatism does a few things for the GOP. It provides an alternative to the failed liberal welfare state (the poverty rate is nearly identical to what it was in 1964) so that Republicans are not merely critics, but policymakers. It focuses on middle-class and working-poor voters, of which there are many more than the entrepreneurs who have drawn so much of the GOP’s attention in recent years. And it serves as a bridge between conservative insurgents (of which Lee certainly is) and more traditional conservatives.
It is striking that “Mr. Establishment,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), spoke in much the same vein as Lee, whom tea party forces claimed as one of their own. McConnell made the case that the people who stand to be hurt the most from failed policies are the least able to fend for themselves. “After all, the Constitution isn’t merely a limiting document, though it is that. It is also meant to enable action, to facilitate commerce, mobility, and greater opportunity — to enrich our lives and our society as the nation grows and develops. This is something two of my Kentucky forebears, Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay, well understood. And it’s well worth remembering even as we steadfastly reaffirm government’s proper limits, ” he said. “The second argument, repeated with great frequency by some of our panelists, is that embracing these various reform proposals and touting them on the campaign trail would go a long way toward alleviating the much-discussed electoral struggles of today’s Republican Party.” (He also decried at some length Sen. Harry Reid’s destructive rule in the Senate. He did make news by suggesting he wasn’t game to repeal the filibuster for appointments as Reid has done if the GOP takes the majority.) Like the panel, he touted school choice, education reform and flexible labor laws that allow parents to bank overtime to spend time with their family.
This is then the language of governance, without the searing rhetoric and demonization of government. That, it seems, is something all flanks of the party can agree upon. McConnell as a legislative leader is understandably interested in nitty-gritty process. But his point is a good one: You have to have robust debate instead of squelched amendments and behind-closed-doors negotiations (as is the case under Reid) to govern well and pass reform (“I think there’s no question that a Republican Senate would be a far more hospitable place for the consideration of the kind of creative policy proposals that you’ve all been writing and thinking about.”) The worst-kept secret is that unless you get elected (with candidates who don’t scare a lot of the electorate) and erect reasonable procedures, conservative reform is not possible.
Conservative reform does, however, pose a problem for two groups. First, the moneymaking operations that sow dissension and raise money to oust incumbents will lose their foothold if there is a united, majority Republican Party rowing in the same direction of reform. They may need to find other work. Second, for the histrionic libertarians who think we are becoming a tyranny and who spend their time worrying that the government is listening to their calls, the gloom-and-doom version of government and the focus merely on what they want to eliminate (spending, taxes, regulations) will leave them somewhat out of step and with a message irrelevant to most Americans. (It is not only in foreign policy where libertarianism doesn’t work in the real world.)