The movement known as national conservatism, which just wrapped up its latest conference in Florida, is the third major attempt to solve the Republican Party’s central 21st-century policy dilemma: How does a party that historically represented the rich and big business adapt to a world where conservatism’s constituencies are not just middle class but blue-collar, downscale and disappointed with the modern American economy?
The first attempted adaptation belonged to George W. Bush. His slogans were “compassionate conservatism” and the “ownership society,” and his policies offered new spending on education and health care, support for faith-based anti-poverty programs and easy credit for new homeowners — all theoretically designed to foster self-sufficiency rather than dependence, building a conservative alternative to the liberal welfare state.
After Bushism came to grief in the housing bubble and the financial crisis, the second adaptation had its hour: so-called reform conservatism, which imagined itself (I was one of the imaginers) as harder-headed than Bushism, offering a suite of technocratic fixes to increase economic mobility and improve middle-class life — and especially middle-class family life — without blowing out the federal budget.
This budget-conscious wonkery seemed poised to influence a Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio administration — before it was simultaneously outbid, absorbed and shattered by Donald Trump. Trump went well to the reformocons’ right on some issues (reform conservatism wanted a pivot to skills-based immigration policy; he just promised to build a wall) and well to their left on others (reform conservatism wanted to means-test entitlements; he promised to protect them), while emphasizing issues like trade and industrial policy that had received less attention from the wonks. And almost all of this he did instinctively, following long-held impulses rather than any think-tank agenda — which meant that conservative intellectuals found themselves trying to backfill a Trumpist program into his chaotic administration.
National conservatism represents the fullest version of this effort. It’s more philosophically ambitious than its compassionate-conservative and reformocon predecessors; its impresario, Yoram Hazony, claims to have rediscovered a consistent non-liberal and non-authoritarian Anglo-American conservatism, rooted in our elite’s long-discarded conservative-Protestant heritage, an argument he advances fascinatingly, if not entirely persuasively, in his recent book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery.”
But on the policy side, the basic question his movement is reckoning with hasn’t changed since the Bush era: How does the Republican Party, which is still the party of free markets and tax cuts, represent and support its working-class constituents?
Broadly speaking, the national conservative answer has been to combine the Trumpian emphasis on trade and industrial policy with the reform-conservative emphasis on family policy, with some trustbusting impulses added in as well. It’s a vision in which conservative governance supports skilled blue-collar jobs, domestic industry and parents of young children, while seeking to weaken the power of the Ivy League and Silicon Valley.
This vision is stronger on conference panels than on Capitol Hill. But it has taken specific legislative forms, including two recent proposals by Republican senators. The first, from Tom Cotton of Arkansas, promises to overhaul work force education and subsidize blue-collar trade work, offering a $9,000 voucher to encourage high school graduates to effectively apprentice in trade jobs, as opposed to enrolling in college. The second, from Marco Rubio of Florida, is an update of his past family-policy proposals, this time framed as a pro-life program and linked to the demise of Roe v. Wade: It proposes a bigger child tax credit and adoption tax credit, along with various programs aimed at supporting new mothers.
Relative to the policy status quo, these are both good bills, just as relative to a conservatism that merely cuts capital gains taxes and declares victory, the industry-and-family-policy synthesis is eminently desirable.
But having lived through several cycles of attempted right-wing policy realignments, I have a sense of the challenges that make these ventures falter.
The first challenge is that because the Democrats are almost always up for more spending than Republicans, whenever an issue achieves new salience in public debate, there’s a tendency for would-be conservative reformers to be outbid by the left. That’s already happened, to some extent, with industrial and family policy: The Biden Democrats have tried to co-opt both issues, leaving populist Republicans to either play the junior partners in bipartisan deals or else argue about policy design — critiquing the details of a given industrial-policy proposal, say, as Rubio did in voting against the recent semiconductor bill, or attacking the design of a family benefit, as conservatives have done with the Democratic focus on day-care subsidies.
This alone is not a fatal problem. Bipartisanship has its place, and the point of changing the G.O.P.’s economic policy isn’t to simply outdo the Democrats; it’s to make better policy while minimizing the Democratic advantage when it comes to the most basic work of politics, rewarding your constituents. And in an age of inflation-imposed limits, especially, saying we want to do some of the same thing as Democrats, but smarter and cheaper and without the cultural-progressive baggage is a perfectly reasonable policy ambition and a solid political message. (It’s certainly preferable to vote for us, we’ll do nothing except cut taxes on the rich.)
But “perfectly reasonable” and “solid” was what reform conservatism promised, once upon a time, with a wonkish furrow in its brow. Trump’s ascent was supposed to change everything, to reveal the total bankruptcy of the existing policy consensus, the need for a conservatism that thinks bigger than tax credits and related tweaks.
And that ambition runs into the second challenge facing national conservatives: The fact that inflation, if it lingers, will force ambitious policymakers to make hard choices, and for conservatives those choices are constrained by the right-wing anathema against raising taxes on the rich.
There are exceptions to this ban, and Cotton and Rubio make the most of them. You can tax the rich if they’re wealthy liberal institutions, and so Cotton funds his training voucher in part with a tax on the endowments of wealthy private colleges. You can tax the upper class by cutting off their tax breaks, and so Rubio funds some of his family policies by ending the state and local tax deduction, a policy that especially benefits higher- earners in bluer states.
Again, these are both good policies: Our richest universities deserve taxation; the SALT deduction deserves to disappear. But they are self-limited policies, well suited to a modest technocratic agenda but not to, say, the kind of sweeping industrial-policy spending that Steve Bannon once promised Trumpism would deliver — or for that matter the much more generous family policy that might actually increase the American birthrate, or help the pro-life movement make good in its ultimate ambitions.
And a self-limiting tendency, while understandable, points to a plausible future in which national conservatism allows itself to be effectively reabsorbed into the G.O.P. mainstream without having achieved its revolution.
As Park MacDougald observed recently for UnHerd, just in the several years they’ve held conferences, there’s already been a taming of the “natcons.” The first conference was “chaotic, controversial, and heterodox in good and bad ways.” But with prominence has come a smoother version, with few fringe provocations but also less heterodox policy substance and more “conventional Republican fare.”
Much of the movement seems ready to rally around Ron DeSantis, which is understandable and, relative to the alternative of Trump redux, prudent. But is DeSantis actually a “natcon,” or just a Republican capable of channeling a populist mood and taking advantage of liberal cultural overreach? And if he’s (probably) the latter, then how much does national conservatism ask of him — and what does the natcon persuasion become if, let’s say, he gets elected president by a narrow margin, some fiscal space opens up, and he uses most of it for the usual G.O.P. round of upper-income tax cuts?
One answer is that a few natcons will peel away into an honorable political irrelevance, while the rest will be content to be “cheap dates,” to quote a former G.O.P. staffer who criticized the natcons to MacDougald.
But that epithet isn’t quite fair: The natcons, like the reformocons and compassionate conservatives before them, have strong noneconomic reasons to remain in the G.O.P. coalition, and as long as the Republican Party is pro-life or ranged against cultural progressivism, they are getting something significant out of the relationship.
What they want, though, is to lead the coalition — to set the right’s priorities across the board and seek a Reaganesque or Rooseveltian majority, rather than just having some boxes checked on their behalf while the G.O.P. tries grind its way to a tenuous majority. And to get that, they’ll need to find the lever that the predecessors never quite discovered, and somehow move the party to a place where the factions that just want tax cuts are coming, hat in hand, to them.
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