New York's Jonathan Chait: ‘True Contribution’ of Reform Conservatives Is Their Opposition to Far-Right ‘Hysteria’

New York magazine political writer Jonathan Chait isn’t a big fan of reform conservatives, but he did comment in a Sunday post that their “worldview,” unlike that of the Republican base, isn’t expressed as “a series of furious scrawlings on mental chalkboards.” (Presumably, Chait figures that the reformicons favor a crisp PowerPoint presentation.)

Chait lauds the reformers for implicitly rejecting the “apocalypticism” of movement conservatives, which holds, in his words, “that Barack Obama’s agenda poses a dire threat to the fabric of American life, that a reversal must be sweeping in its scope and undertaken immediately.”

From Chait’s post (emphasis added):

Last week, Marco Rubio delivered a speech outlining his economic agenda, and it was widely hailed as the cutting-edge statement of “reform conservatism”…[Reform conservatives’] plans are filled with unreconciled contradictions, gaping policy holes, airy generalities, and, in the few places where they are specific, they are exceedingly small-bore in their focus.

Yet to attempt to define the[ir] agenda for what it says about itself is to miss the far more significant message lying in what it does not say: that Barack Obama’s agenda poses a dire threat to the fabric of American life, that a reversal must be sweeping in its scope and undertaken immediately. The movement’s true contribution lies in its challenge to Republican apocalypticism.


Glenn Beck’s moment of maximum influence already passed several years ago. But Beck was merely the most comic incarnation of a pervasive Republican alarm. The unhinged versions of this sensibility held that Obama had launched a sinister ideological assault on the Constitution and American freedom, perhaps in the name of Islamism, or socialism, or, somehow, both. The hinged version tended to fasten onto touchstones like Greece, hyperinflation, and looming fiscal catastrophe.The whole Republican worldview has been a series of furious scrawlings on mental chalkboards.

Rubio closely followed the party Zeitgeist. He has compared Obama to a “left-wing strongman”…and uttered such lines as “This is life in Obama, Reid, and Pelosi’s America, where not only is free enterprise attacked, but so too is anyone who dares to defend it.”

His economic speech notably makes a far more gentle critique…Rubio’s dismissal of Obama — “the path of the old and tired ideas of big government — this path will never lead us to that better future” — is several steps up from “left-wing strongman.” Or consider Rubio’s take on health care: “Obamacare is a disaster, but the answer is not to simply return to the way things were before it.” The hyperbolic characterization is there, but it has a rote quality…

[Sam] Tanenhaus’s [article about reform conservatives in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine] displays the same draining away of end-times fervor. And the most telling thing about the story is the near-total absence of Paul Ryan. Not long ago, it would have been unimaginable to read a long story about Republican policy that did not, at least, devote heavy attention to the author of the party’s sweeping vision statement…

Apocalypticism is the essence of Ryan’s analysis of Obama. In unguarded moments, before his rapid ascent to party thought leader, he announced, “we are right now living in an Ayn Rand novel”…

Ryan’s absence is all the more notable since the central protagonist in Tanenhaus’s account is Yuval Levin, a Republican house intellectual who gained his current prominence by advising Ryan…Now the party continues to head inexorably toward its glorious reform future, and Comrade Ryan is oddly missing from the dais.

Republican hysteria still exists, but it increasingly finds its expression not in policy but in a melange of scandal allegations. The threat to the Constitution once epitomized by such things as Obamacare, socialism, and Greece has instead taken the form of Benghazi, the IRS, and Bergdahl.

The reformicons’ retreat from Ryan-style apocalypticism is not only a shrewd tonal shift, but also a welcome — albeit unacknowledged — recognition that the party’s doomsaying has not come to pass, and that the American way of life will indeed survive Obama’s reforms. Indeed, the success of Obama’s domestic agenda may create more space for a conservative counteroffensive, in the way that Reaganism opened political room for Bill Clinton…

Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson is a contributing writer for NewsBusters