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Return of the Reformicons | Pennsylvania Avenue

Rubio has identified with some of the Reformicons' proposals.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Last year, a group of mainly young conservative intellectuals made a splash with a document titled “Room to Grow,” attempting to outline policies that would address the problems, anxieties and worries of the middle class. The so-called Reform Conservative Movement — "Reformicons” for short—got favorable attention from The New York Times Magazine for its attempt to make the Republican Party “the party of ideas.”  

Unless you’re a reader of the lively journal National Affairs, edited by Reformicon leader Yuval Levin, you might have thought the movement had gone into hibernation, though a number of 2016 GOP presidential wannabes — notably Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have identified with some of its proposals, especially making college more affordable and reforming K-12 education. “Room to Grow ”also contained proposals for family friendly tax reform, health care affordability, safety-net and regulatory reform, and infrastructure and energy policy. We’ve yet to see much uptake of those ideas either by the Republican Congress or the presidential field. The latter group, Bush excepted, seems preoccupied with pandering to the basest instincts of the GOP base. Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have reversed themselves on immigration reform. And there’s a mass rush, Bush again excepted, to denounce Common Core educational standards which were originally invented by the nation’s governors and are now seen by the Tea Party (in de facto collusion with the teachers unions) as an President Barack Obama/Bill Gates takeover of the minds of America’s children.  

Happily, the Reformicons are back. Forty or so gathered for the Conservative Reform Network’s second policy summit April 9-11 in Middleburg, Va., to refine ideas, review a new set of “Room to Grow” papers and figure out how to move the GOP in a reformist direction.  

One of the attendees (and movement leaders) was Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who brilliantly summarized the present (dismal) state of political thinking in America that Reformicons hope to replace. “Today’s Democrats have a geriatric agenda,” he wrote. “The centerpieces of today’s Democratic appeal were familiar to Franklin Roosevelt”— the minimum wage, redistribution of incomes, expanded Social Security, higher taxes, a bigger government and more minute regulation of the private sector.  

“Republicans,” Gerson wrote, “have seized the opportunity of running against a 75-year-old agenda by proposing a 35-year-old agenda—the Reagan-era project of lowering taxes in order to spur economic growth,” ignoring the specific needs and struggles of the middle and working classes. He didn’t say it, but it’s true: the other dominant themes of the GOP are “Cut or Eliminate Government Programs” (without proposing many alternatives), “Help Corporate America,” and “Fight Obama” (soon to be shifted to “Fight Hillary.”)  

Gerson’s summary of what he heard at Middleburg this month is that “reform conservatism affirms that there is a crisis in modern capitalism. ... It is a crisis that comes from the introduction of tremendous competitive pressures into the labor market. Those who lack human capital, knowledge and skills are being left behind in large numbers. And government can’t be a bystander.” Government needs to promote growth and productivity, develop human capital and “subsidize wages at the lower end so that unskilled labor can result in a decent life,” mainly by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and cutting payroll taxes.  

I’ve read the draft papers presented in Williamsburg, which will be issued gradually beginning in September and compiled as “Room to Grow Part II,” and I can report they contain some compelling policy entrepreneurship that ought to inspire relevant congressional committees to hold hearings and presidential candidates to take note.  

Some are surprising. Conservatives often attack “crony capitalism,” but cite only Solyndra and other liberal subsidies to clean-energy firms. One Reformicon paper recognizes there’s a lot of conservative-backed crony capitalism going on: farm subsidies, tax breaks for oil and gas, banks still left “too big to fail,” hedge fund operators benefitting from low capital gains rates just for managing other people’s money, the Export-Import Bank that subsidizes large export companies.  

“Government favoritism toward well-connected business and labor interests is now utterly rampant in American public policy,” the paper declares. It is contrary to the free-market principle of open competition and it undermines public confidence in capitalism. It’s no wonder voters identify Republican as “favoring the rich,” often at their expense.  

There’s major emphasis among Reformicons on building human capital -- making college more affordable, forcing universities to report graduation rates (and graduates’ earnings), opening the way for alternative post-secondary skill certifications (increasingly available online) and expanding apprenticeships. Also, limiting teachers union power to wage negotiation, not school management, and expanding school choice by letting federal and state dollars follow students to whatever school they attend. Democrats habitually want to distribute fish to the public. Republicans want people to fish for themselves (while cutting bait allowances). Reformicons want to teach more effective fishing.  

Some Reformicons want to make America more productive and put Americans back to work by cutting capital gains taxes for startups and adding work requirements (welfare-reform style) to social welfare programs such as Food Stamps. Also (believe it or not) by supporting mass transit to get people to work. They want to effectively means-test Medicare and, possibly, privatize it by converting it to a premium-support program. They want to help families by increasing the per-child tax credit. They want to replace Obamacare with a premium-support system with fewer mandates and more choices.  

According to The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, who was also at Williamsburg, Reformicons haven’t yet come to agreement on immigration reform. That’s a flaw. The Reformicons obviously care about the plight of American workers. Those who came here illegally long ago, especially as kids, need to be treated like Americans — indeed, allowed to become Americans and participate in its prosperity. Moreover, if conservatives don’t get right with Latinos, and soon, all the creative policy entrepreneurship in the world won’t allow a conservative to get elected president and put reform ideas into practice.  

Morton Kondracke was executive editor of Roll Call and wrote Pennsylvania Avenue from 1991 to 2011. He is co-authoring a biography of Jack Kemp due out in September.    

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