WRITING A WEEK after the 2008 presidential election, New York Times columnist David Brooks tried to handicap the "fight over the future of conservatism." It would be a battle between "traditionalists," who want to "Cut government, cut taxes, restrict immigration," and "reformers," who agree with an old line by George H.W. Bush: "I'm a conservative, but I'm not a nut about it." If the traditionalists believed in the Right's "true creed" and the Republican Party's "core ideas," the reformers' platform was more amorphous.
Reformers care about global warming, worry about the middle class, have made peace with the welfare state, and want to win over voters who are moderate, college-educated, or Hispanic, but not necessarily in that order. They are more readily identifiable by who they are than by the specific policies they advocate. According to Brooks, the "Reformist view is articulated most fully by books, such as Comeback by David Frum and Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, as well as the various writings of people like Ramesh Ponnuru, Yuval Levin, Jim Manzi, Rod Dreher, Peggy Noonan and, at the moderate edge, me." The traditionalists, by contrast, are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, and Joe the Plumber.
Such a crude dichotomy might sound like a more promising basis for a throwaway column than a serious discussion of the future of a political movement, but conservatives are still talking about it a year later. Despite Brooks's prediction that they would be marginalized and purged, reformist conservatives have thrived in the mainstream media and found the pages of National Review, the Weekly Standard, and other conservative movment publications open to them. Douthat joined Brooks as a regular columnist for the New York Times. The reformists even have their own new magazine, National Affairs.
Reformists begin with a few genuine political insights. Crime, marginal income-tax rates, and the number of people on welfare are all lower than when Ronald Reagan was elected. This has understandably made these bread-and-butter conservative issues less salient to voters than the rising cost of healthcare, a policy area where the debate has changed since the 1990s. There are now self-employed workers, a natural GOP constituency if there ever was one, who would rather absorb moderate tax increases than continue to pay for their own health insurance. There are also businesses that would prefer to dump their employees onto a government-run "public option" rather than provide them with private health insurance.
Much of reformist conservatism is really an aesthetic judgment about the Republican Party and conservative movement, one that is difficult for fair-minded observers to reject entirely. Some popular radio talk-show hosts are loud and boorish. Some personalities who resonate with self-described conservatives are deeply unpopular among most other Americans. Elements of the movement have been hostile to new ideas, spending their time, as Brooks puts it, "living inside the large conservative cocoon and telling each other things they already agree with." Conservatives have perhaps not been hostile enough to new Obama-era conspiracy theories, as Republican "birthers" complement Democratic 9/11 "truthers."
But the reformist critique would be more convincing if more of its prominent exponents had been complaining about the state of conservatism before Republicans started losing elections. Instead, many of them were staunch supporters of George W. Bush and John McCain, imagining them to be promising vessels for the reformists' "new ideas." To be sure, reformers were critical of McCain's listless presidential campaign and did not believe that Bush's compassionate conservatism went far enough. This, however, is criticism along the same lines as those supply-siders who thought the 2001 Bush tax cuts did not focus enough on reducing marginal rates.
In fact, the reformists tended to support the very Bush-era policies that ushered in the Obama administration and Democratic congressional majorities. …