Last week a group of conservative scholars, former officials and journalists rolled out “Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.” The book and the reform conservative movement it champions came about after anti-government right-wingers blew themselves over the government shutdown, Obamacare proved to be as bad as conservatives said and multiple government scandals disillusioned voters and cast doubt on the workability of a giant liberal welfare state. Three authors of “Room to Grow” and I discussed their book and conservative reform. Below is the first part of our discussion (part 2 will be posted tomorrow):
Bits and pieces of reform conservatism have been around since the original neo-cons of the 1950, and we’ve had compassionate conservatism. But it seems you are talking about a more fundamental revision in how the right looks at government. What prompted you to put it all together in a cohesive way? GOP political defeat? Obamacare? Yuval Levin: The context for this is really not so much a failure of conservatism as the failure of liberalism. The liberal welfare state has never been a very good match for the realities of American life, and that problem is getting worse and worse all the time as our economy and our society are increasingly moving away from a consolidated, centralized, “big institution” way of life. Americans understand that our institutions of government are not functioning well in the 21st century, and that the country’s economic performance and the prospects of the middle class and of those who want to join the middle class are held back by these failures. We’re not living in a situation in which the left has a winning formula and the right has to learn from it (or vice versa). Both parties have been somewhat intellectually exhausted, but conservatives are in a far better position to recover from that and to offer the public an agenda that applies conservative principles to today’s problems in ways very well suited to the concerns and anxieties of working families. The idea behind this book is really to put in one place some of the key conservative policy ideas that form the backbone of that kind of middle-class agenda. Many conservatives, for understandable reasons, have been focused in the past few years on restraining the Democrats, on preventing terrible things from happening. And that’s crucial. But to make our case to the public, we have to also provide people with a vision of what a conservative approach to governing would involve now and how it would help people address the problems and challenges they’re facing.
Ramesh Ponnuru: Every generation of conservatives has to apply conservative principles to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and I don’t think we are trying to change those principles so much as do that work for our generation. I do think that Republicans’ failure to make conservatism relevant to today—to supply a compelling answer to the question, how would a conservative agenda make life better for my family and my country—has contributed to their recent defeats.
Peter Wehner: Republican defeats aren’t the sole reason I think this effort is necessary, but it’s part of the reason. The Republican Party is the political home of the conservative movement, and so when it fails, conservatism is set back. The GOP needs a better, more comprehensive and more modern governing vision. “Room To Grow” is our effort to meet that need. I’d add that there’s a tendency among some on the right to simply disparage government rather than to put forward ideas to improve (and responsibly re-limit) it; to speak only about its size and to ignore its purposes; to talk about abstract theories at the expense of practical solutions to problems facing middle-class Americans. We’re offering a conservative alternative to the failures of liberalism and doing so in a way that’s both principled and potentially popular, that’s consistent with our tradition and relevant to the challenges of our times.
When you present the ideas, some conservatives say, ‘All that is nice, but can you cut government?’. What is the problem or the challenge with that perspective?
Levin: There’s nothing at all wrong with that perspective, but the question is how do we reduce the size and scope and reach of government? The answer to that can’t be that what we want is just the liberal welfare state at a slightly lower cost so we just trim some pennies off the top. That’s how conservatives have sounded to the country sometimes in recent years, and it’s very important to clarify to people that what we’re after is a different approach to government, that sees the role of government not as managing society or administering huge systems but rather facilitating success—setting the rules, enabling competition that improves how we provide public services, and making it possible for people to have the options and resources to meet the challenges they face. The reforms in this book would cut the size of government very substantially—especially because the health entitlement programs are the biggest drivers of growing federal spending and the health proposals in this book would reform them in ways that dramatically curtail those costs. But what’s proposed here is a much bolder conservative leap to the right than just cutting the level of federal spending. This is about reconceiving the role of government along the lines of the conservative vision of society, in which what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state, and government exists to enable society to thrive in that space rather than crowding it out and taking it over. This book takes that general vision and shows what it means in detail in particular policy areas.
Ponnuru: In pretty much every area the book considers, the idea is to move to a more modest conception of government. We want taxes, regulations and the flow of government money to do a lot less to shape health care, for example. We want government to do a lot less of this than Obamacare does, certainly, but also a lot less than the government did before Obamacare. But we do avoid the mistake of thinking that just cutting spending will get you there. More generally, we think it’s important for conservatives to understand that while voters have a healthy skepticism of government and a desire to make it smaller, they also want to see problems solved and thus it’s important to show how these impulses can be reconciled: how, that is, limited-government conservatism solves problems or allows us to make progress on them.
Wehner: Cutting government is, of course, important, but it can only really happen in a sustainable way if it comes in the context of reforms that would make government more effective, more efficient, more modern and more market-oriented. Education is a good example. Spending less on education, or getting rid of the Department of Education, might make sense. But improving education requires a series of reforms geared toward greater choice and competition, more transparency and more accountability. The proposals offered up by Rick Hess in “Room To Grow” would certainly do a lot more to educate students than cutting the federal and state education budgets. This whole discussion is also taking place within a certain context. Right now the problem with conservatives isn’t that they’re not talking enough about the evils of big government; it’s that they’re not talking enough about how conservative policies are going to improve, on a daily basis, the lives of middle-class Americans.