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Reform Conservatism: Compassionate Conservatism Rebranded?

Reform Conservatism: Compassionate Conservatism Rebranded?

“Conservative” central planning and redistribution

As the GOP field of candidates gets larger and more ideologically diverse, conservatives work toward a defining message about their brand of conservatism.  The latest incarnation is an apparent rebranding of the “compassionate conservatism” most closely associated with President George W. Bush.

Not only is the term itself objectionable in its implication that conservatism is not compassionate, but it is equally objectionable in practice.  From compassionate conservatism we notably got No Child Left Behind and (then and still unfunded) Medicare Part D.  Expanding government and increasing spending to provide, expand, and otherwise “reform” an ever-growing number of federal programs seems to undermine fundamental principles of conservatism.

Rather than working to significantly shrink or even eradicate giant social welfare programs, “compassionate” conservatism worked to “reform” them at huge cost to the American tax payer. And therein lies the problem for many conservatives who might agree that a safety net is viable, even necessary, but who draw the line at a welfare state that goes well beyond being a temporary safety net for those in need to a generational morass from which few ever escape.

Compassionate conservatism was, in essence, an attempt to apply conservative principles to social engineering goals, a means of reforming the welfare state and “helping the poor” via central planning.  The central planning itself, however, was supposed to be rooted in fiscally conservative principles, but the underlying precept was that big government is the answer . . . no matter the question.

Many conservatives (such as myself) find this marriage of big government social engineering and conservatism more than a little perplexing in its inherent contradiction.  As noted in The Washington Post:

The essential problem was that compassionate conservatism was an unstable amalgam of two very different ideas, one good and one very bad. The good idea, encouraging self-help and grass-roots entrepreneurship, was largely abandoned in favor of the bad idea, namely the embrace of central planning to raise K-12 test scores and homeownership rates, as though artificially pumping up mortgage finance bore any resemblance to encouraging real prosperity. Bailouts of Detroit and Wall Street would follow the same logic.

We don’t hear the term “compassionate conservative” very often these days and with good reason.  That doesn’t mean, however, that its principles have been abandoned by its proponents.  Enter Reform Conservatism:

There is a sense in which reform conservatism can be defined as an update and overhaul of American institutions — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare programs, job training — that were created in the 1930s and the 1960s and are now creaky and fiscally unsustainable. This constitutes an ambitious agenda, involving the use of government to empower individuals with information, resources and choices — a Margaret Thatcher-like use of power to break up old power arrangements.

These efforts stand in contrast to a simplistic formulation of conservative “constitutionalism,” which doesn’t see the work of government reform as necessary because it does not cede the legitimacy of the New Deal and Great Society. In a certain way, reform conservatism is more ambitious than this type of constitutionalism because it actually offers a governing agenda that would transform the modern state, not just applause lines at a CPAC convention.

But after prolonged exposure to reform conservatives, it is clear that their main policy insight runs deeper. One reason that American institutions are badly in need of modernization is to respond to new economic realities. Large, irreversible economic trends — particularly globalization and the technological revolution — have made it difficult for many Americans to find dignified work, sufficient to supporting a family, particularly when they have limited skills and education. Modern capitalism has left some communities in serious need of transitional help — and the transition may last a long time. Some type of redistribution is necessary. But it should be, in the reform conservative view, redistribution that favors work, family and the accumulation of useful skills. [emphasis added]

Reformocons don’t want to diminish the role of the federal government, they want to expand and refine—even redefine—it, and they seem to imagine that foregrounding some conservative principles such as work and family is the same thing as enacting conservative policy, i.e. policy based in small government, personal responsibility, and equal opportunity rather than outcome.  As Robert Tracinski argues:

The key premise of this non-reforming “reform conservatism” is the idea that it’s impossible to really touch the welfare state. We might be able to alter its incentives and improve its clanking machinery, but only if we loudly assure everyone that we love it and want to keep it forever.

And there’s the problem. Not only is this defeatist at its core, abandoning the cause of small government at the outset, but it fails to address the most important problem facing the country.

“Reform conservatism” is an answer to the question: how can we promote the goal of freedom and small government—without posing any outright challenge to the welfare state? The answer: you can’t. All you can do is tinker around the edges of Leviathan. And ultimately, it won’t make much difference, because it will all be overwelmed [sic] in the coming disaster.

Reformocons don’t themselves use the terms “central planning,” “welfare state,” or “redistribution” for obvious reasons, but they are clear that these are the bases of their conservative progressive reforms.  Following is a panel discussion that is well worth taking the time to watch:

Can conservatism embrace central planning and the welfare state?  Is redistribution really conservative?  These are questions to ponder as we assess the 2016 GOP primary field and, indeed, the future of conservatism in America.



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“Can conservatism embrace central planning and the welfare state?”

No. Not and remain as Conservatives.

And I HATE that “reform” has been co-opted by these guys, since we REALLY need fundamental reforms as part of turning back to the Constitution.

    You should read the America Next report then that Bobby Jindal is pushing along with Heritage. Why push something that dovetails so closely with Ban Ki-Moon’s Agenda?

    The document, which is supposed to be about K-12 ed policy, accepts the welfare state explicitly. What makes this conservative is that the central planning policies aimed at redistribution are implemented locally and using private providers instead of government providers. The terms get set by public officials though intent on preserving the welfare state as a matter of innate human rights along with an obligation.

    Preposterous, but unfortunately very common in this constitutional scheme financed by Soros called Progressive polyphonic federalism

      casualobserver in reply to Robin. | May 24, 2015 at 12:45 pm

      At least pushing control down to the local level and including more private engagement is a MASSIVE step in the right direction. I’d much rather have the community involved in trial and error efforts to improve education, social well-being, etc., than people like Jonathan Gruber making similar decisions from on high. For good or bad, community pressure CAN changes things. Just look at how some politics around gun control or immigration can be fluid at the state level. By contrast, we’ve got “conservatives” in DC pushing secretive trade deals and using manipulations in rules to get their way. I’m much more comfortable taking a step at a time in the right direction. Where we can hold decision makers more accountable. THAT will drive further change.

        Ragspierre in reply to casualobserver. | May 24, 2015 at 1:04 pm


        But the Collective can’t stand leaving people in local or even state control to decide issues.

        This is WHY everything has become a federal knife-fight. This is WHY the religious right became politically involved; they had to, or simply cede the field. This is WHY so many things have to be decided by the courts (because you can’t leave it to the peeples via democratic mechanisms…they just don’t decide things “right”).

        The Collective DEMANDS that EVERYTHING be centralized and homogenized…their way.

        Except most of the power is in appointed commissions like the MTOs originally set up to plan transit, but now urged to be involved with economic development and workforce development. In many states the local school boards have been stripped of their authority to intervene in any education controversies.

        Local is who has control over people and places at the most personal level and every radical knows it. It’s time everyone else does.

        Do you realize how many legislators turn out to have day jobs working for development authorities or how many mayors quietly work for law firms wanting to get in on the infrastructure bonds?

          casualobserver in reply to Robin. | May 24, 2015 at 1:51 pm

          Politics = cronyism and even corruption at times at any level. But it’s a lot easier to expose it and change it in a state or town/community. Not perfect. But easier. If people could stop wasting so much energy in national efforts, like senatorial elections, they could focus more on their local level. Why put your available time into getting Mitch McConnell defeated in a state far away if you are better served making change at your local level? There is only so much time and resources available for the average voter. Now it seems an overwhelming proportion needs to be focused nationally. But when it is focused locally, change happens. A lot faster than in DC. Remember CO recalls based on gun legislation? I’m not aware of a comparable accountability action at the federal level recently.

Conservatism is compassion…adult compassion as opposed to the adolescent style “where’s my daddy” compassion of the collectivist central planner. The former knows how to cut the apron strings, the latter can’t bear the thought.

To self-describe as a “Compassionate Conservative” is to engage in cheap self-serving moral preening of the tackiest kind.

legalizehazing | May 24, 2015 at 10:11 am

Ugh. The angle they should be working is prudent governance. We’ve got so many hot headed reformers, that while morally in line, are looking for fast hard change with firey appeal to the base. There is still a place for prudence in Conservatism. We need leaders that can offer appeal as a steady rock and leaders that are righteous reformers. They can offer reason and rationale for the independents growing the tent.

This is exactly the kind of surrender that Mark Steyn has warned about for years. The idea that the difference between the parties is that one claims to be better managers of the unsustainable, freedom-destroying mega-state than the other.

Freedom is off the table, as is the quaint concept that there are limits to what government can, or should, do.

Midwest Rhino | May 24, 2015 at 11:16 am

Sure, let’s reform welfare. We can give everyone a middle upper class standard of living … for 1955. Somehow those folks in 1955 thought they had it good, with black and white TV and two channels, no air conditioning, unreliable transportation, etc.

My health insurance is $6000/yr and I still have to pay for the first $5000 each year. Those on the government programs just show up and my tax dollars pay everything for them. They go regularly, I don’t go. Yet conservatives aren’t compassionate enough?

Open borders, global warming, growing welfare state … all the same goals of crushing the liberty of free markets, and centralizing power under the well-heeled boot of the corrupt authoritarians. All presented with Stalinist five year plan style goals, of government orchestrated utopia.

Maybe the reform candidate should focus on the growth of government abuse, and the need for prosecution when government workers assault the citizenry. 2012 elections, Obama said his policies were on the ballot, and he lost big. Why start adopting those losing policies?

Henry Hawkins | May 24, 2015 at 12:13 pm

As the Democrat Party lurched left in 2008, the GOP chased after it, parking their tent to its right where it remains as we approach 2016. Thus positioned, the GOP tent is supposed to capture the independent bloc of voters, which holds a plurality over both the GOP and the Democrats. This strategy is supposed to create the GOP’s best chance of winning and requires a presidential candidate that can swallow all the Democrat Lite policies and plans made requisite if you’re going to live next door to the Democrats, to their right, of course. Hence the Bob Doles, John McCains, Mitt Romneys, with Jeb Bush the new savior.

Conservatives and libertarians are told they must vote for the GOP guy, lest the Democrats win, that we have no other choice and we’ll be wasting our votes and causing the doom of our country – but they sure don’t say much about how the current GOP crop in charge has not and will not do anything, cave after cave, so as not to offend any potential voters, you see. It’s their default stance. They own Congress, but they always need just one more thing before they can set the country right. Right. We’ve bought that pony before and it turned lame. Remember the promises made if we’d just give the GOP the US Senate? They’ve done nothing substantive with control of congress, won’t even try. Ironically, the only thing they do get VERY energized about is… defending their lack of energy.

Given its vaunted success rate, the GOP will deploy this Democrat Lite magic spell again for 2016, with Jeb Bush (yawn) their champion.

The current establishment GOP is not so bothered with wealth redistribution, central planning, raising taxes, and creating new bureaucracies when they envision themselves in charge of it all.

That is precisely the type of moldy career office holder we need to scrub from the Washington hog trough of money.

    Midwest Rhino in reply to Henry Hawkins. | May 25, 2015 at 5:31 pm

    “We’ve bought that pony before and it turned lame. “

    They dump a big load of manure on us, then expect us to be excited because there must be a pony in there somewhere. 😉

Lego Insurrection | May 24, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Reformocons? More like Deseptikons, amirite?

The Republican party has no future. This has been ensured by the current bastards running it.

That’s why the Tea Party rose up, and will again.