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Conservative Reformers Need To Make DC Listen

There’s room in the reform conservative camp to debate what good conservative reform looks like. But first, the Republican Party has to take note.

Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times column argues the most consequential recent development for the GOP has been “the fact that reform conservatism suddenly has national politicians in its corner.” Indeed, Douthat writes: Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) have presented reform ideas that “are already more interesting and promising than almost anything Republicans campaigned on in 2012.”

Welcome, Ross, to what many of us have been saying for the last several years. Republicans ran a campaign in 2012 premised on keeping their heads down and not “making ourselves the issue.” Senators Lee and Rubio have more in common, however, than just having recently introduced bold policy ideas. They also bucked this advice and ran insurgent campaigns against Establishment-backed candidates and won because they inspired people with bold ideas.

Sen. Rubio ran against then-Republican Governor, now Democrat-candidate, Charlie Crist. Crist was supported by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Rubio was supported by then-Sen. Jim DeMint. Sen. Lee defeated then-Republican Senator, now DC-Lobbyist, Bob Bennett. Once again, Sen. Lee didn’t have Washington support, but instead the support of grassroots conservatives like the Club for Growth.

So, in short, the folks talking about inspiring ideas are also the ones who ran inspiring campaigns and won despite having the deck stacked against them. The folks who avoided inspiring ideas in order to “not be the issue” ran dull campaigns and lost despite a reasonably favorable electoral landscape. There may be a fact pattern here.

This is not meant to merely be an exercise in claiming credit for past victories. It is critical to understanding why reform conservatism – and there’s plenty of room to debate what that should mean – is tied to what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) calls the campaign to Make DC Listen.

Douthat wants to ask the question of how the Republican Party breaks free from its allegedly rejectionist base. He’s asking the wrong question. The question is whether the Republican Party can break its cozy relationship with Washington’s Ruling Class of lobbyists, consultants and defenders of the status quo enough to embrace these bold policies, differentiate itself from the Democrat Party of Big Government, and appeal to the vast majority of Americans who have thrown up their hands in disgust.

As Neal B. Freeman recently told National Review, “Every conservative knows in his bones that the threshold question in politics is whether or not to enlarge city hall.” While the rest of the nation struggles, our nation’s city hall – Washington, DC – couldn’t be doing better, and the Republican Party has done a lot to make sure of it. Bold ideas – status-quo changing ideas – aren’t beneficial if you’re running city hall.

There’s a shining example of what happens when conservatives inside Washington and around the country work together to challenge the status quo and articulate a bold agenda: the premium support provisions in the House budgets. The concept of premium support – a defined contribution to the health plan of a beneficiary’s choice – is not a new idea. Think tanks, opinion journals and academics have been writing about premium support (which already serves as the basis for health policy initiatives such as the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program) for years, but House Republicans boldly introduced it into the public debate with their 2011 budget.

Conservatives have and do give the House of Representatives credit for launching that much needed conversation about Medicare reform.

Democrats certainly did their best to hang Republicans for the audacity of introducing bold ideas into the public debate about Medicare. But with a Republican conference in the House united with conservatives across the country behind a bold idea worthy of the party of Lincoln and Reagan, “Mediscare” attacks were beaten back. Indeed, Mitt Romney won a larger share of the senior vote in 2012 than Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had in 2008 despite ludicrous claims from Democrats that his election would result in granny getting thrown off a cliff.

Conservatives have and do give the House of Representatives credit for launching that much needed conversation about Medicare reform. Heritage Action, for example, launched a $250,000 campaign during the summer of 2011 explaining the need for Medicare reform in critical parts of the country. The House’s bold proposal allowed the country to see a real debate about the proper role of government in the 21st century and demonstrated conservative ideas are those which seek to fix our nation’s antiquated policies.

But as we are giving due credit, conservatives must also ask why the Republican Party allowed itself to get boxed into defending old, broken policies on issues ranging from tax hikes, farm bills, and transportation policy. These areas are where the internecine fights have actually been in recent years and these are areas conservatives again have a bold story to tell the American people.

Consider the messy fight at the end of 2012 over the so-called “fiscal cliff.” President Obama, recently elected, wanted to allow the majority of the Bush tax cuts to expire and House Republicans wanted to extend all of them. The country, meanwhile, yawned at more gridlock in Washington. But take a step back and look how that showdown could have appeared if the House had taken advantage of the opportunity to legislate a conservative governing vision at some point prior to New Years’ Eve. Imagine if the House had passed a conservative vision of what the tax code should look like in the 21st Century. There are plenty of plans at there. The Heritage Foundation has our New Flat Tax. Sen. Lee has introduced a similarly bold vision as did Sen. DeMint. Steve Forbes ran for President two times on his vision of what a modern tax code looks like and the FAIR Tax provides an additional option.

Had the House taken one of these worthy proposals – or elements of any and crafted their own bold proposal – and passed it, they would have been able to say: “Mr. President, we’ve laid out our vision for what sort of tax policy is best for the nation. We’d love to engage you in a discussion of it. It not, we are happy to keep the law as it is today. But we will not allow you to hold some parts of the tax code hostage until you get exactly what you want.” Good policy is not only good politics. It’s also good negotiating strategy.

Why didn’t House Republicans go down this path? Why were they caught in a debate over whether or not to extend 10-year old tax policy with a newly elected President? It was certainly not because of destructive forces in the conservative movement. They were caught in that debate because they were unwilling to look Washington’s Ruling Class – the lobbyists on K Street, the consultants around town, and even some members and staff – in the eye and shake things up. Tax reform has winners and losers and in an age of multi-million dollar campaigns nobody wants to tell a major donor their hard earned loopholes and special treatment are going out the window.

Why didn House Republicans get caught in a debate over whether or not to extend 10-year old tax policy with a newly elected President?

Am I overstating my case? For the last two years, Congress has been caught in gridlock over a farm bill. America’s agriculture policy is a convoluted mess of programs dreamt up by central planners decades ago. Policy experts from the right to the left agree it needs to be drastically revamped. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) accurately described our nation’s dairy supports as “Soviet-style.” This past summer, a bloated Farm and Food Stamp Bill was defeated on the floor of the House when conservatives refused to go forward with the bill.

“Separate and start-over” was the concept conservatives were pushing. Break the farm and food stamp bill into two different bills so modern conservative proposals could be put forth on each. The House did separate the two titles… and proceeded to advance a farm bill that did nothing to advance a conservative governing agenda. As Douthat himself explained at the time:

[W]hen House Republicans severed the traditional connection, arbitrary but politically effective, between farm subsidies and food stamps, it briefly seemed like they were looking for an opportunity to put libertarian populist principle into practice, by separating both outlays in order to trim or reform both separately. But no — instead they were just making it easier for the party’s congressmen to vote for a bloated, awful big government program that benefits mostly-Republican states and interest groups, knowing that they weren’t also voting for something that pays out to the (mostly-Democratic) poor as well.

Reform conservatives could not have dreamt up a better platform from which to demonstrate what a conservative governing agenda looks like than the 2012 farm bill. Conservatives should have advanced legislation that answered all sorts of questions – such as what role does the government have in helping those who grow our food deal with the cyclical nature of growing seasons. They chose not to, and instead gave Republican-friendly agriculture interest groups the bill they demanded.

Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) has a bold plan that could change the debate in our nation’s highway funding debates to empower localities with the dollars they collect. That idea went nowhere in the House in deference to a typical bloated Highway Bill that blew through the traditional relationship between our nation’s highway spending and the amounts collected by the federal gas tax. It is, after all, a lot easier for road builders and cement interests to lobby Congress to spend hundreds of billions on new roads than 50 individual state houses.

There’s room for those of us in the reform conservative camp to debate what good conservative reform looks like. We all agree it centers around reinvigorating society’s core institutions – the family, community, and the private sphere. How active government can and should be in reinvigorating those institutions is an important debate.

What’s less debatable is that reform conservatives of all stripes should be on the same side of the question of whether and how to reform the Republican Party. Today’s Republican Party is too often not the party of Lincoln and Reagan but instead of consultants, lobbyists and rent-seekers. That’s why so many Americans – from the heartland all the way to Ross Douthat’s keyboard – feel shut out from having any interesting debates on the right.

Michael A. Needham is the chief executive officer of Heritage Action for America.

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