David Frum, the journalist and former George W. Bush speechwriter who is one of the bolder members of the group Ryan Cooper once dubbed the “Reformish Conservatives,” has an essay in The Atlantic in which he blames the rise of Donald Trump on the the GOP elite’s refusal to recognize that hoary conservative policies simply haven’t addressed the needs of a devastated middle and working class. The piece is garnering a lot of attention, including here, and I won’t try to summarize that debate. Instead, I’d like to point out a passage near the end in which Frum lays out one of the four paths forward he sees as possible for the GOP establishment, and the one he clearly wishes it to take:
Admittedly, this may be the most uncongenial thought of them all, but party elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. Remember that Republican voters care more about aligning government with their values of work and family than they care about cutting the size of government as an end in itself. Recognize that the gimmick of mobilizing the base with culture-war outrages stopped working at least a decade ago.
Such a party would cut health-care costs by squeezing providers, not young beneficiaries. It would boost productivity by investing in hard infrastructure—bridges, airports, water-treatment plants. It would restore Dwight Eisenhower to the Republican pantheon alongside Ronald Reagan and emphasize the center in center-right.
A couple of observations about that passage. First, it highlights one of the biggest problems that reformers like Frum face, which is that the policy space they want the GOP to seize is already occupied. Most if not all of the positions Frum is advocating fall pretty comfortably into the center-left consensus as expressed by the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton, and leading Democratic members of Congress. Even the progressive left would sign on to much of this stuff in a heartbeat. That doesn’t mean conservatives can’t or shouldn’t be for them, and hats off to Frum for making the case. The point is that when it comes to policy the Democratic establishment already represents the pragmatic middle of American despite what you hear from conservative ideologues and professional centrist types like Ron Fournier.
Second, if you go through his list of policies, it’s hard (at least for me) not to be struck by how many of the policy prescriptions Frum is advocating, such as using competition to contain costs in health care and higher education, were first articulated to a national audience here at the Washington Monthly.
This is not an accident. We at the Monthly very consciously try to play the role of intellectual scouts. We poke around over horizon looking for promising political and policy paths out of our current dilemmas. We then try to articulate what we’ve found not in the dry technocratic language of white papers but in magazine articles and blog posts that we hope are understandable and enjoyable to our readers–be they plugged-in citizens outside the Beltway or insiders like Frum (an acquaintance of mine who I know reads the magazine).
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