In America, political ideas that lack partisan champions are regarded suspiciously, like an attempt to cheat at cards or pay for dinner with counterfeit cash. Because we have only two parties, because those parties are ideologically disciplined, and because everyone is obsessed with the other side’s unrighteousness, there’s a sense that if you aren’t fully on board with an existing partisan agenda, you don’t have any business getting mixed up in the debate.
There is an exception for rich people who wish Michael Bloomberg could be president: They get to have gushing articles written about their boring, implausible third-party fantasies every four years. Everyone else is out of luck. If you’re a consistent libertarian, Naderite left-winger or social conservative who’s also an economic populist, it isn’t enough to make the case for your ideas; you must perpetually explain why, in the absence of a Libertarian Party or a Socialist Party or a Mike Huckabee presidential run, anyone should even care that you exist.
And for the past few years, this same suspicion has attached itself to what had heretofore been a more mainstream group: conservative policy thinkers.
The conservative policy larder was genuinely bare by the end of the Bush presidency. But that changed, reasonably swiftly, across President Barack Obama’s first term.
A new journal, National Affairs, edited by Yuval Levin, began incubating alternatives to a re-ascendant liberalism. The older magazines and think tanks were reinvigorated and played host to increasingly lively policy debates. And a new generation of conservative thinkers coalesced: James Capretta and Avik Roy on health care, Brad Wilcox and Kay Hymowitz on social policy, Ramesh Ponnuru on taxes and monetary policy, James Pethokoukis on financial regulation, Reihan Salam on all of the above, and many others.
By 2012, it was possible to discern the outlines of a plausible right-of-center agenda on domestic polity — a new “reform conservatism,” if you will.
But the Republican Party simply wasn’t interested.
Reform conservatism did have one partial champion in Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored the only plausible Obamacare alternative in Congress, and whose evolving Medicare proposal drew on ideas Mr. Levin and others had proposed. But Rep. Ryan was defined (and mostly defined himself) as Mr. Austerity rather than Mr. Reform. The rest of the party, meanwhile, was consumed by a Tea Party vs. Establishment rivalry that had a policy substrate but was just as often about posturing and score-settling.
Then came the Romney campaign, about whose substance the less said the better.
So a question has hovered over the would-be conservative reformers: If their ideas lack Republican champions, do they actually matter? Are they even worthy of debate? Or is reform conservatism basically a curiosity, an irrelevancy, a kind of center-right Naderism?
Which is why the most consequential recent development for the GOP might not actually be Chris Christie’s traffic scandal. It might, instead, be the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.
The first is Mike Lee, the junior senator from Utah, who has pivoted from leading the defund-Obamacare movement to basically becoming a one-stop shop for provocative reform ideas: In the last six months, his office has proposed a new family-friendly tax reform, reached across the aisle to work on criminal justice issues and offered significant new proposals on transportation and higher education reform.
The second is Marco Rubio, whose speech two weeks ago on the anniversary of the declaration of the war on poverty called for two major changes to the safety net: first, pooling federal anti-poverty programs into a single fund that would allow more flexibility for state experiments; and second, replacing the earned-income tax credit with a direct wage subsidy designed to offer more help to low-income, single men.
Taken together, Mr. Lee’s and Mr. Rubio’s proposals are already more interesting and promising than almost anything Republicans campaigned on in 2012 — and there may be more to come, from them and perhaps from Mr. Ryan as well.
Of course these ideas coexist, as liberals have been quick to point out, with a congressional party that’s still wedded to opposition, austerity and not much else. But the Republican Party’s problems were never going to be solved from the House of Representatives, any more than House Democrats could rescue their party from its Reagan-era wilderness. The more likely solution for the GOP has always required a two-step process: Rising-star politicians coalesce around a new agenda; then a winning presidential candidate puts it into effect.
Which may not happen in this case — because the party’s base may be too rejectionist, because Hillary Clinton may actually be unstoppable no matter what her rival’s platform says, because two senators do not a reformist moment make.
But for conservative policy reformers, there’s an unfamiliar feeling in the air: It’s as if, for the first time in many years, their perspective actually exists.
Ross Douthat is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.