The False Promise of Reformish Conservatives

In 2012, I thought the GOP might ditch bigotry. Whoops.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

To support our work, please consider making a donation. We’re a nonprofit that relies on reader support, and from November 1 to December 31, your contribution will be doubled by NewsMatch.

After Barack Obama’s decisive reelection victory in 2012, it looked as though the long process of conservative radicalization might be at a turning point. Democrats had trounced Republicans among all minority groups. The Republican National Committee, aware that the white GOP base constituted a shrinking share of the electorate, released a stunning “autopsy” report, diagnosing what had gone wrong. The document warned that the party was becoming closed-minded, that it needed to move left on LGBTQ issues, and that its stance on immigration would have to change. 

By 2013 there appeared to be a burgeoning conservative reform movement—and I decided to write about it. I interviewed many of the reformers, including former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett and then conservative commentators Josh Barro and Ramesh Ponnuru. At the time, they were pushing for moderate immigration reform and for tentative moves away from the traditional right-wing insistence on tax and welfare cuts. Their efforts were fairly weak, I argued, and they faced “an extremely steep climb” to achieve influence. But, I concluded, “if in 2016 a Republican presidential contender can break free from the death grip of conservative Know-Nothingism and still succeed electorally,” the reformers “may well become very influential.”

Whoops.

Instead, the Republican Party drank even more deeply from the well of Know-Nothingism in 2016, nominating a racist game show host with literally zero political experience—and he won. Despite my caveats, the whole premise of the article was disastrously wrong. Now it’s time for an autopsy report of my own.

There were four factors that made a hash of my thinking. First, I failed to anticipate Republicans winning a blowout victory in the 2014 midterms. This seriously dented what little momentum reformers had.

Second, I didn’t realize what a disaster nominating Hillary Clinton in 2016 would be for the Democrats. She had an astoundingly difficult time putting away Bernie Sanders, who at the time was a barely known weirdo from the second-smallest state in the nation. By late 2015—long before the email story got going—her popularity numbers were deep underwater, where they would remain. She ended up being the second-most-unpopular major-party nominee in the history of polling, behind only Donald Trump himself.

Third, I failed to anticipate the depths of moral depravity to which the Republican Party would sink. I implicitly assumed that if Republicans continued to bleed support among younger generations, they would have to moderate their positions. But this assumed that they would play by the rules. In reality, they have compensated by cheating, using counter-majoritarian strategies like gerrymandering and voter suppression and stuffing the federal courts with right-wing ideologues who will rubber-stamp those maneuvers. Using these tactics, plus their undemocratic advantage in the Electoral College and the Senate, Republicans cling to power even as their elderly white voting base shrinks. 

For my entire life, the Republican Party has been a geyser of awful policies and even worse moral behavior. Despite that, I gave into wishful thinking that perhaps, this time, they would turn things around of their own volition. Instead, the reformers I profiled have been sidelined by the party or have left it altogether. Barro now identifies as a neoliberal, while Bartlett is so disgusted with Republicans that he’s closer to Elizabeth Warren than to Mitt Romney. Ramesh Ponnuru, David Frum, and Reihan Salam are Trump skeptics, cast out in the cold by a party that approves of their president by a nine-to-one margin. It is clear that nothing will halt the spiral of Republican depravity aside from repeated, crushing political defeat.

That leads to my final mistake, which was a tacit overestimation of the strategic sense of the Democratic leadership. Republican extremism provided an opportunity that Democrats failed to exploit—in turn weakening the hand of reformers. 

As I detailed in the article, Democrats had undergone their own reform process in the 1990s, when they ditched much of the New Deal liberalism that had defined the party for a generation, and moved to the center. But that was nearly thirty years ago, and it’s now clear that moderate thinking is dragging Democrats down. Millennials, the oldest of whom are nearly forty, are arguably the most left-wing generation of voters in American history. The Gen Z cohort coming up behind them is further left still. 

Even so, Democratic Party leadership seems nearly incapable of shaking off the ’90s-vintage belief that the country is implacably conservative. Indeed, surveys show that both Republican and Democratic legislators over-
estimate the rightward slant of the average citizen. In 2016 the party elite united around Hillary Clinton, who had run to Obama’s right in the 2008 primary and lost. Even after Democrats won a sweeping victory in the 2018 midterms, the party leadership spent most of 2019 squashing calls for impeachment hearings.

However, there are signs that the Democrats’ learned helplessness is finally shaking off. As of this writing, the House has begun an impeachment inquiry over Trump’s attempts to blackmail Ukraine into investigating the Biden family. (No doubt the bill of particulars will have expanded by the time you read this.)

Elections are always strongly affected by chance events, and incumbents always have an advantage. But it’s also clear that both Donald Trump and the Republican Party are extremely unpopular, clinging to power only through cheating and a geographically warped constitutional system. When it comes to the psychosis that grips the Republican Party, the particular course chosen by Democrats matters a lot less than the party coming to believe and behave as though it has a majority behind it—as it in fact does. Only when Republicans are shut out of power for a decade or more will there be any hope for a successful conservative reform movement.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at the Week. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the Nation. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2012 to 2014.