When a network of self-styled “reform conservatives” released their manifesto, “Room to Grow,” to admiring audiences in Washington, D.C., last month, they hardly expected that one of their Capitol Hill champions — Eric Cantor — would become the first House Majority Leader to be rebuffed by primary voters three weeks later.
Cantor parroted the language of the “conservative governing vision” of these journalists and policy wonks, ostensibly to help Middle America. But this “young gun” underestimated how his advocacy for open borders, guest workers, and the “carried interest” exemption — top concerns of Wall Street and Silicon Valley — spoke louder than his rhetoric claiming he stood with average citizens struggling to achieve the American Dream.
“Room to Grow” steers clear of any discussion of immigration. But that tactical silence — on a wedge issue that boosted turnout 40 percent above the Virginia congressman’s 2012 primary — reflects the “reformers’” reluctance to challenge the real enemies of reform: political, cultural, and financial elites who seek to marginalize bourgeois America via a host of issues related to immigration.
This attempt to float politely above the fray will not help the GOP. As Matthew Continetti argued in the Washington Free Beacon, the reform conservative plan is too cute for its own good: “I don’t think you can have a winning pro-middle-class conservatism that runs away from the hot-button social issues of abortion, marriage, guns, welfare, and affirmative action. … Republican voters care deeply about these issues, as Republicans should, and they are, like it or not, the issues that drive GOP voters to the polls.”
Reflecting this disengagement, “Room to Grow” implies that a mere pruning of tax, fiscal, education, health-care, and social-welfare policy trees can save the day. But the manifesto doesn’t see the forest: the imperative of reversing the post-Reagan economic upheaval stemming from policies favoring the powerful through globalization, outsourcing, and financialization.
The book largely ignores the rise of the FIRE sector (finance, insurance, and real estate) and the corresponding decline of manufacturing, agriculture, and infrastructure, proven sources of wealth creation and family-wage jobs. No chapters challenge the drain on the American economy by East Asian currency manipulation, the overvalued dollar’s role as the reserve currency, or competition from state-owned enterprises.
Nor do the writers address our $10-trillion trade deficit or the drive toward more automation, as reflected by Amazon’s decision to employ a new generation of robots in its fulfillment centers. That’s great news for Amazon stockholders, but it compresses wages of Americans without college degrees.
While many of their policy prescriptions have merit, reform conservatives struggle to think outside the libertarian box that that has dragged the GOP down nationally — and hamstrung Mitt Romney and George W. Bush. Indeed, the role of the reform conservatism deans — Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin — as high-level aides in the Bush 43 White House and Romney campaign makes it difficult for them to step back and ask: Is a decentralized free-market system that even Ronald Reagan would not recognize the only alternative to a centralized, welfare-state model of public policy?
The truth is that a more promising option remains in the conservative arsenal: the “American System” that originated with Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln, and was fully developed in the 20th century by Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and Ike. Under their leadership, the federal government pursued major infrastructure, defense research, and manufacturing projects that built a flourishing middle-class republic — and today, could save a nation.
As Cantor failed to grasp, the road to a middle-class GOP victory runs through the millions of anxious voters who fear their country has reached a breaking point. That path does not run through the power centers, but rather the forgotten Rust Belt that includes upstate New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, and the mill towns of the South.
To win back this electoral trump card, Republicans must propose a national — and yes, centralized — plan to revive a healthy manufacturing sector, robust R&D, and new transportation infrastructure as the way forward to a good life for the vast majority of Americans.
That kind of vision, and a GOP leader who promises to build such a system — not the small ball of reform conservatism — may be the only way to beat Hillary in 2016.
Robert W. Patterson is a veteran of the administrations of President George W. Bush and Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania.