As political pundits struggle to find an explanation for Trump’s indisputable success in the GOP 2016 presidential primary contest, Josh Barro wonders if Trump is the candidate reform conservatives are seeking.  He writes:

For the last few years, a small but prominent group of conservative writers and thinkers has urged the Republican party to rethink its economic agenda with a greater focus on the needs of the middle class. The so-called reform conservatives have criticized the G.O.P.’s economic prescription of cutting entitlement programs and tax rates (especially on high earners) as unresponsive to the concerns of workers earning stagnant wages.

“Reform conservatism is based on a recognition that the American economy has not served middle-income people well, not just since the crisis of 2008 but at least since the year 2000,” said David Frum, the prominent Canadian-American conservative journalist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush who serves as a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Reformocons, as I have previously noted, “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.”

Barro asserts that Trump’s desire to fix the illegal immigration problem and his support for higher taxes on the wealthy seems to make him a good fit for reform conservatives.

There happens to be a Republican candidate for president who wants less immigration but also thinks it’s “outrageous” how little tax some rich people pay, and he’s doing pretty well in the polls. Is Donald Trump the candidate the reformocons have been waiting for?

“No,” Mr. Frum said.

. . . .   It’s an awkward thing: The reform conservative movement, to the extent it exists, is pointy-headed, technocratic and soft-spoken. Mr. Trump is none of those things. But his campaign has helped bolster a key argument from the reformocons: that many Republican voters are not devotees of supply-side economics and are more interested in the right kind of government than in a simply smaller one.

Like the compassionate conservatives before them, reformocons believe that big government is the answer . . . if it’s done right (i.e. by them), and the continued and surging support for Trump, they and Barro argue, seems to validate their own worldview.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to think the Tea Party is a straightforward libertarian movement,” said Reihan Salam, the executive editor of National Review. But he said Mr. Trump’s ability to lead the polls while attacking Republicans for wanting to cut entitlement programs showed that conservative voters are open to “government programs that help the right people.”

Mr. Frum attributes most Republican candidates’ continued devotion to cuts in taxes and entitlements to the desires of a Republican donor class that benefits directly from lower tax rates and indirectly, through lower labor costs, from high immigration. Mr. Trump, as Mr. Trump will happily tell you, does not need rich donors’ money, and the polls show that Republican voters have not yet punished him for his praise of single-payer health care (in other countries) or his past support for a wealth tax.

. . . .  Of course, there are reasons the reformocons have not lined up to support Mr. Trump. Just because he has identified some of the same problems as the reformocons does not mean they agree on solutions.

“I would not characterize Mr. Trump’s campaign so far as a policy-driven campaign to help the middle class,” said Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who has urged conservatives to adopt more creative solutions to address the weak job market. He took particular issue with Mr. Trump’s support for higher tariffs and his apparent disregard for long-term deficits.

While Barro argues that Trump might be a reform conservative despite his lack of support among reformocons, others have argued that he’s a progressive, Reaganesque, a fraud, and an astute politician.  One thing is certain, Trump defies neat categories, and as the professor noted, he is “by far the most entertaining politician we’ve had in memory.”


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