Yesterday I shared the first part of my discussion with three key thinkers in the growing reform conservatism movement: Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner and Ramesh Ponnuru. Affirmative, forward-looking and enamored of a vibrant but limited federal government, reform conservatism offers a way forward for the GOP. Although his wording was again maladroit, Karl Rove got it partially right when he said Hillary Clinton is “old and stale.” Actually her ideas are, as the slow-motion collapse of the liberal welfare state plays our before out eyes:

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) leave the Senate floor before the vote to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters) U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The reform conservative idea makes a break with libertarians insofar as you recognize a large but limited government is here to stay and government does have a role in setting the ground rules for people to succeed. Is that inevitable, and, as an electoral matter, do Republicans still come out ahead?

Levin: The role for government envisioned in these proposals is certainly an important role, but it is far more limited than the government we have now. It’s about helping people succeed, rather than doing everything for them. Many libertarians would probably agree that this is the sort of role government should play, and it’s certainly a set of policy proposals that’s closer to where a lot of libertarians are than much of what the Republican Party has offered and done in the past few decades. But it’s not based in a radically individualist notion of society. It’s based in something more like Mike Lee’s idea of the rugged American community — an idea with real liberty at its core. A lot of Americans can relate to that way of thinking about how our society works, so the politics of it do look more promising than the politics of the Republican agenda of the last few years.

Ponnuru: Libertarians come in many varieties, and I would think this agenda would have some appeal to the more practically minded among them. The government has done quite a lot to cartelize higher education, and libertarians have been among those most keen on pointing this out. As Andrew Kelly’s chapter points out, there are a lot of ways to start breaking up that cartel — ways that don’t pretend that we’re going to just get rid of federal support for higher education.

Wehner: Our agenda isn’t a libertarian ideal of course – there are, after all, intrinsic tensions that exists between conservatism and libertarianism – but if its policies were enacted into law most libertarians would, I think, be rather pleased; and they’d certainly be happier with what government would be doing than is now the case. Libertarians would be supportive, I should think, of our efforts to offer a different way of thinking about government, to move from administering large systems of service provision to empowering people to address the problems they confront on their own terms; to provide people with the resources and skills they need to address the challenges they face rather than to try to manage their decisions from on high.

When you talk about moderation, incrementalism and humility in the reform conservative movement some of our friends on the right think this is just about moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. Can you talk about how a conservative reform mind-set and rhetorical style do not mean timidity either on policy or politics? 

Levin: Maybe there’s an element of temperamental moderation in some of our work, but it’s certainly not about moderation as a substantive matter. What we’re proposing would take the Republican Party well to the right of where it has been in recent years, in the sense that it offers a practical vision of government that is not just a cheaper and smaller version of the Great Society welfare state but is an applied conservatism built around an idea of American society in which the role of government is a decidedly supporting role. Look at each of these proposals—from the Obamacare replacement to tax reform, education reforms, safety net reforms, financial reforms and the anti-cronyism agenda and what you find is a much more ambitious conservative policy agenda. Incrementalism is of course unavoidable in politics — you have to get where you’re going step by step. But it has to be informed by where you want to go, and that vision in this case is hardly timid. Humility is an essential conservative virtue: humility about what government can achieve, and about how much we can ever know about how to address large, complicated social problems. But getting to a government that embodies that humility, starting from the government we have now, which decidedly doesn’t, is going to require some very major steps to the right and some very bold reforms, and those are what you see in this book. So while there is certainly a strong case for humility (which could even be called timidity) in how government should approach society, getting to a government that works that way will require boldness and energy, and that’s what we propose. 

Ponnuru: Replacing Obamacare, making colleges innovate and cut costs, providing tax relief to middle-class families: None of that is especially timid. The modesty of this agenda consists of its willingness to work with the grain of American society rather than try to reshape it according to an ideological plan. (As an aside, though, I do think that boldness is overrated as a selling point for an agenda.)

Wehner: I don’t think the agenda that we’re offering is at all timid. It’s rather bold, I would say, but it’s also realistic. It’s operating within the realities of American political life, which is what you would expect a conservative approach to do. It isn’t a pipe dream, and it’s not radical. Speaking of which: My preference would be for the rhetoric of conservatism, or at least some of those who claim to speak for conservatism, would be somewhat less radical and the proposals they champion somewhat more far-reaching. In the 2012 presidential race, for example, Michele Bachmann portrayed herself as a crusader on behalf of smaller government. Yet when it came to an acid test like reforming Medicare, a huge driver of our debt, she was rather timid. What works, I think, is restrained rhetoric, combined with a certain substantive boldness, combined with greater policy precision. One final point: It is a reform agenda that will actually succeed in relimiting government. Apocalyptic language and ferocious anti-government rhetoric may be therapeutic, but the real-world results would be to leave the liberal welfare state untouched.

Here, I’m probably touching on a third rail, but Jeb Bush talks about the role immigrants in reviving and rejuvenating American society [and] in that space government should open up and create ground rules for success. Doesn’t that have to be part of the equation?

Levin: The problems with our broken immigration system certainly need to be addressed. A reform of immigration laws that secures the border, allows for more higher-skilled immigration and reconceives of how we think about lower-skilled immigration so that we guard the interests of low-income Americans while offering opportunities for people motivated to join our society would of course be an improvement over our current immigration laws, and some of the authors of the essays in this book (myself included) have proposed versions of such proposals. It’s an issue on which there is a fair bit of common ground but obviously also some very divisive disagreements on the right that have not proven easy to resolve, and we certainly wouldn’t presume we could resolve them here.

Ponnuru: Conservatives, obviously, disagree among themselves about immigration policy, but I think people on both sides of the divide ought to be able to embrace a lot of the conservative reforms in this book. My own view is that we should move sequentially on immigration: first pairing increased enforcement at the border and workplace with an amnesty limited to people who were brought here as minors, then moving to a broader amnesty once we know the enforcement is working. And we should keep in mind that immigration has brought a lot of economically insecure people into our country, which increases the need for conservatives to offer an agenda that makes it easier for people to climb the economic ladder.

Wehner: I agree with Yuval and Ramesh. There’s a fair amount of common ground on immigration among most conservatives, from border security to increasing the number of high-skilled immigrants to rethinking the overriding preference we give to so-called family reunification to assimilation to deporting illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes. There are even some common assumptions when it comes to those in America who are here illegally. Let me be specific. Even most of those who are visible critics of illegal immigration don’t support mass deportation, while on the flip side those who are less worried about the effects of illegal immigration don’t tend to support blanket amnesty. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, there’s a tendency to exaggerate the divisions that exist rather than focus on the things we share in common. It shouldn’t be all that difficult to settle on an immigration approach that most people on the right can support, if not in every respect than certainly as an improvement to the current system.

The third and final part of the discussion will be posted later this morning.