Reformicons As Heretics

Jonathan Chait, who’s been writing derisively about the Cult of Ronald Reagan as a powerful factor in Republican politics for years, now notes that the small band of wonks calling themselves Reform Conservatives is trying to claim an authentic connection to the Holy One. That’s difficult, since a key feature of the Reformicon agenda is to challenge the primacy (if not the accommodation) of lower tax rates on high incomes and capital as the Alpha and Omega of conservatism. Yet as Chait observes, the Temple of the Cult of Reagan is quite literally housed within Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform; Grover himself has long been the high priest, forever harassing state and local governments to name things after the 40th president.

You can understand why the reform conservatives presented their case this way — winning a Reagan-Off is the only way to win an argument within the Party. Yet the form of the debate helps explain why the reformists were so badly crushed. The history used by the supply-siders may be inaccurate, but the fanaticism with which they purvey it is real. And in a contest of theological devotion, feigned fanaticism will usually lose out to the genuine kind.

But there is another problem for Reformicons that is distinct from, yet mutually reinforcing with, the Cult of Reagan: the advent of Constitutional Conservatism, the ideological residue of the Tea Party Movement, significantly if not thoroughly digested by the GOP, like the Tea faction itself. The very idea of “reform” is alien to the Con-Con mind, focused as it is on an eternally perfect Founders scheme of absolute property rights, absolute zygote rights, quasi-absolute states’ rights, a firmly established yet nondenominational conservative Christian Church, all frozen in amber by Divine Inspiration and protected from “reform” by the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.

So for every conservative who thinks of Reagan as a law-giver like Moses, there is another who thinks of him as a Prophet like Zechariah who calls God’s people back to their home and heritage. Neither of them is interesting in reforming anything.

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.