Former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is not fading into the sunset. Instead, he seems to be bringing the Magnificent Seven back with him and ready to fight once more.
…in the policy arena.
Perhaps New York Magazine was trying to sandbag the big news, but conservative reformers — often dubbed “reformicons” — haven’t exactly had a good year:
Perhaps the fullest measure of the supply-siders’ triumph can be seen in the acquiescence of many of the reformicons themselves. Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin, both reform conservatives featured prominently in the Times story, responded to the new Lee-Rubio plan with fawning praise.James Pethokoukis, a reformist conservative, calls the plan “a big step toward persuading middle-income America that Republicans care about more than just the richest 1 percent.” (If this is a big step toward persuading America that Republicans care about more than the rich, what would the next step be? Legalizing servant-flogging?)
Perhaps the reform conservatives have capitulated completely in the name of party unity. Or maybe they were misunderstood from the beginning and never proposed to deviate in any substantive way from the traditional platform of massively regressive, debt-financed tax-cutting. Either way, the movement has, for now, accomplished less than nothing.
One heck of an indictment, and perhaps designed to be so (it’s not as if NYM’s Jonathan Chait is precisely rooting for the reformicons). But the Democrats do see the threat of reform-minded conservatives actually succeeding in making the federal government work more efficiently. Indeed, should the reformicons succeed where the social democrats have failed, the Democrats accurately perceive the movement to be the mortal blow it is — one that would consign the Democrats into oblivion for the next 20 years and reformulate the national debate, not between progressives and conservatives (with liberals determining the victors), but between libertarians and reformicons, with conservatives arbiting what is best for America.
So serious is the threat that both open and secret enemies of the movement are openly opining as to whether or not the center-right movement should just go join the Democratic Party and be happy there. From The Week:
I think a lot of the confusion stems from the assumption that we’re dealing with Big Ideas — “civil society” versus “technocratic centralization” or “conservatism” versus “liberalism.” But politics isn’t about Big Ideas. It’s about coalitions and the power to get things done. What makes the reformicons so weird is they insist on being loyal to a political coalition that is uniquely hostile to, and disinterested in, their policy preferences. As Elias Isquith put it, they have no actual voter base.
In short, the reformicons need to join the Democratic Party.
Blah, blah, blah… short version? The Democrats — mostly in the marginally defunct Democratic Leadership Council crowd — are already proposing such reforms.
…and given their wild and enthusiastic support among the Democratic intelligentsia, they’ve all passed muster — right? Hardly.
So what do the reformicons want, and what are their Big Ideas? Well, one need look no further than some of the very solid proposals being issued in publications such as National Affairs:
After Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008, Levin was one of many conservative intellectuals who, as he put it to me this past March, “were trying to figure out what the hell this new world looked like.” He had been writing for National Review and The Weekly Standard, but they are political journals, and Levin saw an urgent need on the right for serious policy ideas. Out of this came National Affairs, the quarterly he founded and continues to edit, with a small staff, out of his office at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” As Levin said: “The magazine tries to sit at the intersection of political ideas and public policy. That’s where a lot of the action has to happen. You have to persuade conservatives and voters in general. And you need to have a coherent vision underlying a policy agenda.”
Sounds good, and the movement even started to pick up some momentum temporarily in the spring of 2014. What derailed it?
The event was a success by almost every measure. In the following days, praise flowed predictably from the conservative media — National Review, The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page — but also Mike Allen’s Playbook column on Politico, which quoted snippets from the “conservative manifesto for the middle class,” and The New Republic. The magazine published a skeptical profile of Levin in 2013, but now it conceded, “Liberals should take reform conservatives seriously,” because they are putting forth “valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit.”
The reformicons, it seemed, had captured their party’s imagination. But three weeks later, on June 10, the narrative of the newly in-touch G.O.P. met the colder reality of politics, with its pitiless winnowing of winners and losers. Eric Cantor, in what was supposed to be a cakewalk primary, succumbed to David Brat, a far-right challenger so obscure that national anti-establishment organizations like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, which poured millions into other insurgencies, kept out of this one.
Dave Brat derailed it.
Collectively, the reformicons gasped. They have yet to exhale, because their lodestar — Majority Leader Cantor — had been politically martyred in the middle of the public square. The reformicon Caesar on his way to being crowned Speaker of the House had met the right wing antithesis of everything he stood for; his very own Brutus. In short, rather than have the reformicon-libertarian dialectic, the Tea Party movement put a lead boot on the seedling before it even had a chance to see spring.
Almost a year after the shock, acolytes of the reformicon movement have finally been able to sort out a path to the future.
The YG Network — the force behind the attempted takeover of RPV State Central Committee members in 2014 — is now rebranding itself away from a grassroots feel and more towards a policy shop, embracing the reformicon label and rebranding as the Conservative Reform Network:
It will remain a 501(c)(4) advocacy group that can receive unlimited, undisclosed donations, but will now be known as the Conservative Reform Network (CRN). The new name is a nod to the role it is seeking to play now, that of a group bringing organization and cohesion to the disparate elements that make up the reform conservatism movement.
John Murray, another former top Cantor aide who has run YG since 2011, told Yahoo News that CRN in its new incarnation will be a “convener of brain power” and referred to “this reformicon engine room that we’re building.”
Thus Eric Cantor reintroduces himself to the national political scene, and is staffing up with notables such as his former deputy chief Neil Bradley:
Former Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement Bradley was indispensable as an adviser to House leadership. “His encyclopedic knowledge, strategic insight and institutional wisdom played a role in nearly every major congressional decision over the past 6 years,” Cantor said. “He will continue to be a force pushing positive conservative reforms for years to come.”
While senior staffers praised Bradley’s intellect and institutional knowledge — as well as his “common sense and good humor,” in the words of Energy and Commerce Staff Director Gary Andres — Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan, one of the three “Young Guns” with Cantor and Ryan, said Bradley is “one of the very best policy minds I have ever worked with in Congress.”
So how serious is the effort? YG Network spent a combined total of $6.6 million last year, and CRN looks to match or exceed that effort between its 501c4 and PAC arms. Moreover, if the conversations with national political stars such as Walker and Bush are of any import, combined with the patronage of Senators Lee and Rubio? A good number of the darlings of the Tea Party movement are attached directly to the reformicon orbit — a fact that I’m sure will shock and surprise some folks in Virginia’s 7th District.
Welcome to reality, folks.
For those who really want to get their teeth into what the reformicons are about, the Room to Grow Manifesto is your starting point. The brilliant minds at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) — Arthur Brooks leading the pack — and writers at National Review such as Ramesh Ponnuru are right there in the mix.
The shortest explanation of the reformicon movement is this: Reagan was right about the means of shrinking the size, scope and power of the government. One freezes the denominator and grows the numerator — allowing the economy to outpace government, thus carving out a sphere for fair play and free enterprise. Accomplish this, and in a generation you will recapture the spirit and dream of the American experiment.
Sounds easy, right? In today’s environment where the most strident opinions are viewed as the most rigorous, reformicons have a lot of work to do to convince conservatives that they aren’t warmed-over Beltway moderates. Yet there is a religious theme that appeals to social conservatives within the reformers tone, one that appeals to the nature of conservatism rather than a motive for its imposition. The clique of intellectuals reminds one of the heady days of William F. Buckley Jr. and the advent of modern American conservatism — one that found itself at odds with the populist movements of its age and is finding itself again at odds with today’s populists. In short, just as Buckley sought to strike the balance of liberty between the poles of tyranny and license, so too are reformicons seeking to strike the balance of conservative ethics between our populists and libertarian wings — and do so in as much of a win-win project as possible.
Whether or not the Republican Party has the temperament to tolerate such voices is another conversation altogether. Few Americans are ready for the instantaneous dismantling of the welfare state, and fewer still have a forward looking plan as to what — if any — plan the liberty movement really has to get us to Libertopia. Even rising stars such as Senator Rand Paul have chipped away at the ideal his father, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, has extolled over the last few decades. Yet the opportunity to reconstruct the dialectic between conservative reformers and the liberty movement remains at the national level, and is winning adherents within the Beltway. Whether conservatives tired of solutions from Washington will accept such an incremental descent from social democracy to a more liberty-minded apparatus remains to be seen.
Those questioning whether or not Eric Cantor would make himself comfortable in New York now have their wake up call. Make no mistake… the reformicons are here to stay, picking up steam, capturing hearts and minds, and defining the 2016 debate.