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Conservatives like me wanted to reform the Republican Party. What do we do now?

Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich, at a CNN debate during the 2016 Republican primary.
No one stood up for policy innovation during the Republican primary. Now look where we are.
Carolyn Cole / Getty

Remember those long-ago days — say, 2014 — when it looked as though conservative reformers were perhaps on the verge of reshaping and modernizing the Republican Party? Good times. That cohort was profiled in a lengthy New York Times magazine piece that year, titled “Can the GOP Be a Party of Ideas?” (I’m in there in the Founding Fathers homage photo.) These “reformicons” or “reformocons” or, my cheeky favorite, “reformöcons” wanted the GOP to adopt a more middle-class focus in the 2016 election — higher-ed reform instead of high-end tax cuts, for instance. What we got instead was Trump’s protectionist, white-identity appeal — a bizarro version of the reformicon agenda.

Given that I found Trump to be wildly unfit for the presidency, I voted for Hillary Clinton this year — the first Democratic presidential candidate I ever voted for, and maybe the first Democrat of any kind.

The question is: What do we reformicons do now?

I have not abandoned my belief that the Republican Party is still the more likely vehicle for modern, evidence-driven, center-right ideas about what public policy should optimally look like in 21st-century America. Republicans still have a more reflexive suspicion of top-down central planning and more belief in the power of markets and bottom-up experimentation to guide decision-making in a dynamic and diverse society. Probably they do. Maybe. I’ll get back to you.

Is there a place for policy innovation in Trump’s GOP?

Still, the current environment is discouraging. Even setting Trump aside, the Republican primary season and general election provided almost zero evidence that conservative reformers had fundamentally changed the debate.

Sure, you could have picked through various GOP candidate websites and found some reformicon-ish language or stray policy idea here and there. But the candidates failed to make these ideas a central, easily identifiable, and memorable part of their campaigns. Nothing like how Trump hammered home his intention to build a wall, deport undocumented immigrants, and rip up trade deals.

Here’s a small moment, but an extraordinarily discouraging one for me: The fourth GOP presidential debate last November, hosted by Fox Business, led off with a question about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. This was Marco Rubio’s answer:

Here’s the best way to raise wages. Make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business, tax reform and regulatory reform, bring our debt under control, fully utilize our energy resources so we can reinvigorate manufacturing, repeal and replace Obamacare, and make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training.

For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers. If we do that — and if we do this — if we do this, we will be able to increase wages for millions of Americans and we will be able to leave everyone better off without making anyone worse off.

Lots of good stuff in there. Yet what Rubio didn’t mention to the GOP audience was he had an actual, specific plan to help low-income workers. He had proposed replacing the well-known and effective earned income tax credit — an earnings subsidy — with a “federal wage enhancement” for low-wage workers. (The argument is that it would be better for single men, and boost take-home pay in real time rather when tax returns were filed.)

It was a fresh, innovative idea, sort of what you might expect from a 40-something candidate trying to market himself as a new kind of Republican for the “new American Century.” It was a reformicon-ish idea.

GOP candidates ran away from their good ideas during the primary

Of course, none of the GOP candidates who favored subsidizing low-wage work mentioned their plans in the highly watched debates. Why not? Perhaps in a Republican Party that was becoming older and white, redistributing taxpayer dollars to younger, nonwhite voters was a non-starter. More of a general election theme, you might say. GOP seniors received “earned benefits” such as Medicare and Social Security. Democrats, or so the narrative went, received wasteful welfare such as Medicaid and the EITC. Note that while Mitt Romney ran on reforming Medicare to cut projected spending increases, Trump wanted to leave it as is.

But leaders lead. The best argue their case for new directions and new policies, rather than appeal to existing habits of mind in their followers. It was always my belief that for conservative reform to make a dent in the GOP, it needed a presidential candidate to forcefully make the case. Instead it got Trump and his deportation force.

And now, a year and a half later, the Republican Party is well along to abandoning its belief in economic openness and the necessity of strong American global leadership. Trump’s GOP is one that’s more closely aligned with a closed, ethno-nationalist populism where sovereignty and independence from “global elites” is more important than American exceptionalism and faith in the transformational power of innovation-driven market capitalism. There’s not much place in that party for either conservative reformers or even more traditional Reagan Republicans.

So what’s next? Maybe the NeverTrumpers and reformicons will become better persuaders, at least when it comes to finding more Republican politicians and candidates to pick up their banner. Doing that requires sustained pushback against alternate reality created by talk radio, Breitbart, and the Drudge Report. On the dystopian Earth 2 they describe, America doesn’t make anything more, immigrants are draining our national wealth, and the country is only a half-step from collapse. Oh, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama might be actual pitchfork-and-horns demons.

For years, conservatives assumed their intellectual worldview was pervasive and deeply rooted on the right. There was no need to argue why free trade is a net good even if not everyone wins right away, or why being the leader of the free world benefits American families as much as it does those of NATO or Pacific allies. Trump’s ascension shattered that assumption.

Sympathetic factions within the two major parties might find each other

Much greatly hinges on the nature of the Trump administration — on the extent to which Trump’s bombastic campaign persona gives way to more centrist or center-right governance. Perhaps the Trump White House will end up embracing many sound reform policy initiatives, especially in areas where the candidate has said little or given little detail, such as higher education or replacing Obamacare. Maybe all he really cares about is the wall, and Republican reformers and their allies in Congress will have room to maneuver. One can still hope.

Then again maybe the rash, retrograde populist Trump is the real deal, and the GOP can’t be saved as vehicle for modernized conservative reform. But if there is to be a successor or alternative to the GOP, no think tank or conservative media website is going to cook one up. It will have to be an organic and incremental phenomenon. (Though maybe the wonks and pundits can nudge it along.)

Here’s one scenario that doesn’t seem far-fetched: Imagine that the GOP combines a nationalistic populism with the Tea Party’s hostility to compromise. And at the same time, the Democratic Party continues to shift left, deepening Bernie Sanders’s long-distance love affair with Nordic-style social democracy. Paid leave and free tuition turns into free college and a universal basic income, all paid for through ever higher taxes on the wealthy and business. As the progressive journalist Ryan Cooper writes, airing a view that’s getting considerable traction since Election Day:

It could be that [Bernie] Sanders would have lost as well. But New Democrat neoliberalism manifestly does not any longer deliver the electoral goods that were its original reason for existence. Going forward, Democrats might as well shoot the moon with aggressive Sanders-style social democracy.

For all the chatter there’s been about civil war in the Republican Party, there is plenty of division among Democrats, too. There is the populist wing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Call them the Inequality Democrats. But there are also the Innovation Democrats, college-educated Dems in high-skill industries and independent contractors in the "gig economy." And all those increasingly politically active Silicon Valley donors.

Maybe over time — years — room opens for alternatives to the Republicans and Democrats as currently constituted. Perhaps the nostalgia wings of the Democratic and Republican Parties fuses into a populist nationalist party. Opposing it would be party of soft cosmopolitanism, incorporating the unicorn Democrats and Republican modernizers and embracing technological progress and diversity and global collaboration on issues such as climate change. Again, much is dependent on what happens during the Trump presidency. Conservatives of all varieties need to let the game come to them.

What next for NeverTrump and conservative reformers to succeed? Maybe the formula is similar to one the character Andy Dufresne figured out for escaping Shawshank prison, in The Shawshank Redemption. Pressure and time.

That, and a big goshdarn presidential candidate.

James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an official CNBC contributor. Find him on Twitter @JimPethokoukis.


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