They were supposed to be the president whisperers.
Casually known as "reformocons," these conservative thinkers banded together after the 2012 election with a clear-cut goal in mind: to recast Republican orthodoxy so that it appealed to a broader base and thus allowed a conservative to return to the White House.
It hasn't gone well, as George Packer writes in the Nov. 9 issue of The New Yorker. The reformocons, which includes former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner, National Affairs editor Yuval Levin and Independent Women's Forum director Carrie Lukas, put forward a manifesto called "Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class." Louis Woodhill, writing for Forbes magazine in 2014, responded that "'Room to Grow' is largely irrelevant to solving America's most important problems. To win elections, you must have a mental model of how the electorate makes decisions." He argues that the reform group advocates for middle-class Americans when it should be advocating for economic growth. Talking about the middle class, Woodhill suggests, is weak-kneed Republicans' code for government handouts, or redistribution.
Woodhill wasn't alone on the right in criticizing "Room to Grow," so the reformocons' dreams of playing kingmaker quickly faded away. One result: instead of 2016 presidential candidates who advocate thoughtful free-enterprise prescriptions to aid the middle-class and struggling Americans, the party has ended up with frontrunners who offer impractical, divisive proposals (Donald Trump's wall on the Mexican border) or regularly make bizarre statements that can only appeal to a very narrow constituency (Ben Carson, for starters, has called the Big Bang theory "ridiculous," and he wasn't talking about the sitcom).
"The reformocon project shows how extreme mainstream conservatism has become in its opposition to anything involving the state," Packer writes in The New Yorker. "The reformocons court right-wing censure simply by acknowledging that the middle class is under pressure, and that government has a role to play beyond cutting taxes."
How has it come to this? That's a question old-school Republicans must ask themselves as primary season looms.
Forty-five years ago, William F. Buckley Jr. edited a collection of essays by conservatives called, "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?" At the time, conservatism in the U.S. was very much a minority taste, considered to be nothing more than a sideshow on the national political scene. Buckley, the founder of the groundbreaking conservative journal National Review, wrote in the book's introduction that "conservatives, under the stress of our times, have had to invite all kinds of people into their ranks to help with the job at hand, and the natural courtesy of the conservative causes him to treat such people not as janissaries, but as equals…"
This approach served conservatives well. It brought a charismatic actor and former New Deal Democrat named Ronald Reagan into the fold. It appealed to both Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who advocated a negative income tax that would benefit low-income earners, and pro-football star Jack Kemp, who as a congressman from working-class Buffalo pushed for various policy ideas to raise the fortunes of both the entrenched poor and the middle class.
But that was then. Republicans now hold both houses of Congress, something conservatives in 1970 only got to fantasize about. But that success came at a high cost. The party's extremists now hold the keys to the car, and none of them knows how to drive. As a result, the presidency, immune to the warped, gerrymandered democracy that benefits Republican congressional candidates, is increasingly out of the GOP's reach.
Part of this strange state of affairs can be laid at the feet of those inclusive Republicans of the 1960s and '70s. They thought they could reason with the folks on the fringe. Here's Buckley again from "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?":
"There exists a small breed of men whose passionate distrust of the state has developed into a theology of sorts, or at least into a demonology, to which they adhere as devotedly as any religious fanatic ever attempted to adhere to the will of the Lord. I do not feel contempt for the endeavor of either type. It is intellectually stimulating to discuss alternatives to municipalized streets, even as it is to speculate on whether God's wishes would better be served if we ordered fried or scrambled eggs for breakfast on this particular morning."
Buckley, who died in 2008, lived long enough to see the error of his bemused thinking on this score. Like the androids in "Blade Runner," anti-state fanatics could not be controlled and soon turned on their creators and enablers. And they brought with them some particularly noxious friends. Writes Packer:
"Republicans today have given the country conservatism in the spirit of Sarah Palin, whose ignorance about the world, contempt for expertise, and raw appeals to white identity politics presaged Trump's incendiary campaign."
Even the so-called mainstream Republicans in the presidential campaign have been forced into la-la land in order to compete for these extremist primary votes. Marco Rubio's tax plan does not even come close to adding up. Headlined New York magazine this week: "The math on Rubionomis is way, way crazier than you think." The Florida senator's plan reportedly would reduce federal revenue by $11.8 trillion over the next decade. Rubio nevertheless calls for higher defense spending.
Gov. John Kasich, meanwhile, talks about how he tamed Ohio's budget, failing to mention that he did so by "dramatically" reducing state outlays to local governments, causing already stressed cities like Canton to sink into Detroit-like failure. "Kasich's claims to good economic performance?" Policy Matters Ohio's Zach Schiller told Packer. "I don't know if I want to say 'deceptive,' but they're certainly misleading."
The Republican Party has given the country some of its most enduring and successful policies over recent decades. "I think it's fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there," President Barack Obama himself has acknowledged. But now the party finds itself in an ideological cul-de-sac, with its leaders relentlessly banging on about proposals that are relentlessly fantastical. Was it serendipity that a cartoon accompanying Packer's story in The New Yorker shows a billboard on a city street that reads, "This Message Has No Content"?