A New, Low Threshold of Success for the Reformicons

If there are some bruised feelings among “Reform Conservatives” from the various critiques of them that have been published in recent weeks, David Frum (who is sometimes counted in their ranks, but clearly thinks of himself as part of an older and more independent generation of heretics) offers some healing balm in the form of understanding their inherent limitations.

[A]s a veteran myself of some of these internal debates—I was fired from AEI in 2010 for saying things that the reformers are edging toward today—I do see cause for optimism in the reformist turn by elite conservatives.

What matters most about the reformers is not the things they say but the things they don’t. They don’t abuse the long-term unemployed. They don’t advocate tighter monetary policy in the midst of the worst slump since the 1930s. They don’t urge an immigration policy intended to drive wages even lower than they have already tumbled.

They don’t pooh-pooh the risks of a government default on its obligations, as many conservatives did when radicals in the GOP forced debt-ceiling confrontations in 2011 and 2013. They don’t blame budget deficits for the slow recovery from the crisis of 2009. They don’t shrug off the economic and social troubles of 80 percent of the American nation.

In other words, they are not stupidly irresponsible, or irresponsibly stupid, depending on how you look at it. Anything more, it seems, is just too much to expect.

You don’t change people’s minds by telling them they are wrong, even—or especially—if they are wrong. You change their minds first by establishing an emotional connection with them. Next you ratify their existing beliefs. When it comes time to introduce a new idea, you emphasize its consistency with things they already believe. This is what the reform conservatives are doing, or have begun to do. If they seem to be moving slowly, well, take it from me: It’s no good being even 10 minutes ahead of the times.

As I recall, it was Michael Gerson, not David Frum, who penned George W. Bush’s memorable line that accepting bad public schools for poor and minority students reflected “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But it’s a not a bad description for Frum’s attitude towards the GOP, and thus towards the reformicons. He clearly thinks his party is so deep in ideological sin that it can tolerate only brief and veiled exposure to the light.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.