One of the many “rebranding” ideas for conservatism and the Republican Party you hear an awful lot is that the Right’s ideology just needs to be explained in ways that express deep empathy with those elements of the population–e.g., the poor and middle classes–that are suspicious of Republicans for not having their best interests upper-most in mind. One particularly unconvincing version of this approach is the homily–a specialty of Paul Ryan–offering to liberate needy people from their dependence on government.

But there is a more complicated and more widely used version of this argument that suggests those wanting to pare back government programs (or change their essential nature) are in fact saving them from a certain budget-driven demise. That has in fact been the official packaging of “entitlement reform” proposals from George W. Bush in 2005 to the Romney campaign of 2012. And we learn today from Marc Tracy’s profile at TNR that we can thank Yuval Levin for crafting a lot of that rhetoric:

If the nation doesn’t address its fiscal crisis now, Levin argues, it will face a much larger one later—a state of bankruptcy that will fulfill the libertarian dream of crushing government. This premise leads to his counterintuitive conclusion: To save the welfare state in the future, it must be drastically pared back in the present. “We do not face a choice between the liberal welfare state on one hand and austerity on the other,” Levin has written. “Austerity and decline are what will come if we do not reform the welfare state.”

So take “modest” cuts now, or a voucher now, and you won’t get tossed out on the street when the hammer eventually comes down. A variation on this theme, of course, is to warn one constituency of an entitlement program (e.g., old folks) that their benefits will be screwed by liberals favoring another constituency (e.g., po’ folks).

Now like most “repackaging” schemes, Levin’s doesn’t actually involve different policy positions than that of the mean old Republicans who don’t give a damn about any “takers” dependent on federal programs (other than those which benefit their own entitled selves, of course). It’s just a pitch, more designed to convince conservatives (and maybe some “moderates” chary of GOP radicalism) of their virtue than to actually make converts. But we’ll hear a lot of it in the next few years.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.