In a generally useful take on the “Reform Conservatives” and their claim to represent something equivalent to the center-left’s party reform movements of the 1980s and 1990s, the Prospect‘s Paul Waldman makes a comment worth pondering:

If you don’t challenge your side’s ideological fundamentals, you may not be offering much that’s compelling and new; but question them too much and you’ll alienate the allies you need. Threading that needle can leave you with something like George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”—an alteration to the packaging with only the smallest change in policy, and something with no lasting impact once its chief advocate leaves the scene.

The response of most conservatives to Bush’s talk of compassionate conservatism was, “Sure, whatever.” They knew it didn’t mean much in practice, and if it helped them win the White House, they weren’t going to object, even if it implied that regular conservatism was cruel.

That’s mostly true, but actually, “compassionate conservatism” did serve a function on the Right after W.’s departure: as a scapegoat. Actually, even before he left office, it became extraordinarily common for conservatives to blame the Bush administration’s and the country’s troubles on policy heresies popularly (if somewhat dubiously) associated with “compassionate conservatism:” the Medicare Rx Drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, and above all a relaxation of conservative demands to dismantle low-income programs and balance the budget even while ratcheting taxes ever further down. The whole “brand” became retroactively more important to conservatives, but not in any positive way.

If the current “Reform Conservative” impulse winds up becoming a sort of ideological fashion accessory for an unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate or administration, it could suffer the same fate as “compassionate conservatism:” another object lesson for the Right in the perils of allowing any deviation from “constitutional conservatism,” meaning a return to the policies and cultural norms of the 1930s before America went all to hell.

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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.