Conservatism After the Age of Trump

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Republican Party’s tack toward angry populism has vexed many thinkers on the right who remain committed to free-market economics and humane conservative values. Two of them, Bloomberg Opinion columnists Michael R. Strain and Ramesh Ponnuru, recently met online to reflect on the state of their movement.

Michael R. Strain: A few years back, a project known as “reform conservatism” sought to update the conservative policy agenda so that it better addressed the realities and problems of today, and not just the 1980s. The idea was to apply conservative principles and dispositions — including support for free enterprise, advancing economic opportunity, the importance of personal responsibility and individual liberty — to modern challenges in the job market, health care, higher education, raising a family, and the like. You and I were a part of that project.

But today, many on the right — including the Republican Party — seem to be animated less by these traditional principles and more by nationalism and racial division. Some are embracing protectionism over free trade, industrial policy over free markets, victimization over personal responsibility, and are downplaying the importance of economic growth.

Is there a path back for reform conservatism, and for the values and commitments conservatives have traditionally held in economic policy?

Ramesh Ponnuru: The most important of the conservative dispositions is gratitude. So before lamenting what is lamentable in our present state, let’s take stock of some victories.

Reform conservatives were among the groups on the right most hostile to Donald Trump in 2016. Yet in some respects we have been more successful since his election than we were in the years before it. The pre-Trump party was resistant to our message that its economic agenda, so focused as it was on tax cuts for people in higher income brackets, was a poor fit for the country’s circumstances and especially for the majority of Americans who are not affluent. Thanks to Trump, that resistance has crumbled.

The two major pieces of legislation that Republicans advanced in 2017 reflected the influence of reform conservatism. The tax cut, while not ideal from the perspective of either one of us, followed the advice reformicons had been giving for years: Concentrate less on cutting the top income tax rate and more on cutting the corporate tax rate and expanding the tax credit for children. The health-care legislation, especially as it evolved, reflected our preferences for not disrupting employer-provided health care and for offering assistance so that people who don’t have access to Medicare, Medicaid or employer-provided care could purchase low-cost health insurance to protect themselves from catastrophe. Each of those preferences proved less controversial on the right in 2017 than they had previously been. Neither of these pieces of legislation demonstrated the political strength of reform conservatism as a faction, which has always been negligible. They reflected, rather, the soundness of our argument that something like these policies were the only path forward for Republicans in these areas.

Republicans have advanced reformist ideas on other fronts as well. The Trump administration wants to liberalize standards for accrediting institutions of higher education. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, the rising Republican star of the moment, is proposing to make colleges defray some of the costs for taxpayers when large numbers of their graduates default on government-backed student loans. Both of these were ideas reform conservatives championed.

My point is not that all is well in the Republican Party, or getting better. But Trump’s disruption of the party’s status quo has made it possible to move in new directions on policy, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.

MS: I agree that there are some positive aspects in the policy landscape. But I worry that what’s been lost for both traditional and reform-minded conservatives — including even rhetorical support for deficit and debt reduction, as highlighted by the 2017 Trump tax cuts — seems to be considerably more than what’s been gained.

But I don’t think it’s been permanently lost, for two reasons. One is that the basic laws of economics have not been suspended. Trade wars are bad for households and businesses, as is government-mandated industrial policy, and other “new thinking” on the populist right. As those ideas become reality, that will become more apparent. For example, there are recent reports that the president is increasingly listening to advisers telling him to tone down the trade wars for fear of slowing the economy and hurting his chances at re-election.

The second reason is that appeals to racism and bigotry will have limited purchase in a general election. The same is true of the president’s overall tone towards immigration, and particularly his family separation policy, which is a terrible mix of incompetence and cruelty. If the president keeps this up, it will hurt his re-election chances, and Republicans will see that.

But am I being too optimistic? Are traditional conservative policy views in the wilderness for the foreseeable future?

RP: Republican carelessness about deficits when in power isn’t a Trump-led departure from the party tradition. It is the party tradition, unfortunately.

The Republican Party’s commitment to Trump’s trade policies is on the other hand half-an-inch deep, as was its commitment to the opposite policies prior to him. The Republican presidential nominee of 2024 will be free to take a different view, so long as he or she is realistic about China.

On immigration, Trump’s policies have been a chaotic and sometimes cruel mishmash of impulses. He calls for an amnesty for illegal immigrants who came here as minors one month, then presides over family separation the next, then essentially ditches both policies. Future Republicans will have some freedom to choose which aspects of Trump’s record to build on. But I don’t think they will be able to, or should, revert to the pre-2016 Republican position on immigration, and particularly its leaders’ enthusiasm for expanding low-skilled immigration. Here I think the party may have made a more long-lasting change.

If Trump loses in 2020, and especially if Republicans decide they suffered the first loss for an incumbent in 28 years because of his racial divisiveness, then there will be room for Republicans to move beyond him — although it will be a fraught business, since he will retain significant support from Republican voters. But while a 2020 defeat would make it easier to move the Republican Party to a better place, it would come at a high cost: the empowerment of a Democratic Party that has also been hurtling away from good sense.

MS: I agree with you about the trajectory of the Democrats, which actually brings me to the third reason I think this season of populist frustration will soon pass: Time continues to pass between the present and the global financial crisis and Great Recession that began in 2007. Research suggests that political extremism, including populist flare-ups and political rhetoric that disparages minorities and foreigners, is a consequence of severe financial crisis.

The good news is that populism subsides. The bad news is that the U.S. two-party presidential system is less flexible than parliamentary systems, so a return to normalcy might take longer. Democrats pushing for their own version of extreme policy will not act as a balm for the populist irritant on the right.

RP: The flip side of your argument is that another recession, especially a severe one, could extend the populist moment. But even if the economy keeps growing, I would bet against a “return to normalcy.” Remember the Ayn Rand revival on the right in the early years of the Barack Obama presidency? The Republican Party has realized just how little it truly believed any of that — and that lesson can’t be unlearned.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the editor of “The U.S. Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy.”

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.

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