Is There a Reasonable Conservatism That Can Survive Trump?

This article first appeared on Dorf on Law.

Is there common ground between American liberals and some subset of the people who identify themselves as conservatives?

That is, are there meaningful issues on which -- were it not for the existence of a malignant narcissist in the White House -- something resembling middle-of-the-road reasonableness might prevail?

Sadly, we know the answer to this question when it comes to elected Republicans.

In my two most recent columns, I explained that there are no "moderate" Republicans in public office (and certainly not in the U.S. Senate, which is where America's most clueless pundits are sure that moderate Republicans most assuredly can be found), and I also argued that there are not even any "principled" or "reasonable" Republican officeholders, much less moderate ones.

It is true that a tiny number of Senate Republicans have recently taken a stand against the way Donald Trump conducts himself as president, which is a good thing and courageous in its way.

My point in my recent columns, however, was that a Trump-less Republican Party is still a party of policy extremists. They might not approve of attacking the widows of fallen soldiers, but they are fine with (for example) taking health care coverage away from tens of millions of vulnerable Americans.

In those columns, however, I was discussing only conservatives who currently hold national office. What about the right-leaning pundits?

Are there conservative commentators who might represent something other than the Ryan-Pence-McConnell version of enthusiastic water-carrying for the wealthy (while also doing the bidding of religious fundamentalists)?

Put differently, do the self-identified conservatives who are not worried about running for office, and who spend their time writing and talking about policy, and who have loudly and definitively rejected Trump, hold out the possibility of finding areas of policy agreement with liberals and Democrats? The evidence is mixed at best.

There is plenty of reason to suspect that the NeverTrump conservatives in the punditocracy and the think tanks have no problem with the full awfulness of the hard right agenda that the Republicans have adopted over the last few decades.

If they had a problem with what the current generations of Republicans have done with the conservative idea, after all, they could have walked away long ago.

In late 2015, long before anyone thought that Trump would last through the first few primaries, much less win the nomination and then find a non-majority route to the presidency, I wrote a column asking what it would take for conscientious conservatives to stop supporting what the Republican Party had become.

After all, I noted, "continuing to pull the lever for Republicans empowers people whose views are truly abhorrent to the values that these avowedly moderate conservatives claim to embrace."

Consider, for example, the relatively small policy issue that I mentioned in my most recent column, which is the question of whether people should be allowed to sue financial institutions in court or instead should be forced into arbitration.

There is no obvious liberal or conservative slant on that question in the abstract.

If there were no reason to believe that arbitration is badly stacked against people who claim to have been cheated by their credit card companies, then it would be easy to imagine honest liberals and conservatives putting together a legal framework that allows such claims to be handled fairly and expeditiously.

In reality, however, we know that forced arbitration is a sham. Because conscientious conservatives are quick to say that they are neither pro-business nor pro-consumer -- that what they truly care about is honest market competition -- they should be the first ones to say that markets will work best if we provide all parties with a fair venue in which to litigate claims.

What we have seen instead is that Senate Republicans (with two exceptions) voted in lockstep to all but guarantee that financial institutions will be able to continue to scam their middle-class customers with impunity.

The only "conservative" arguments against a fair process were second-order, based on Republicans' hostility to the particular regulator that had promulgated the rule (the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren) and opposition to regulation in general.

But those are not genuinely conservative arguments. ("Regulation" is not inherently conservative or liberal. It is the setting of rules by which markets operate.) They are mere excuses to keep the playing field tilted in favor of business interests.

Republicans say that they are in favor of capitalism until they find that their patrons do not really like the "raw competition" that conservative thinkers lovingly describe.

If we are going to find a group of open-minded conservatives to come to the table with ideas on how to solve policy problems, then, we need to find people who are not simply cheerleaders for whatever is "good for business."

Similarly, one might hope that the NeverTrump conservatives who hold themselves out as the voices of reason would also be a bit worried about extremism on the judiciary.

Yet the argument among American conservatives has, in the Trump era, been driven by what is now known as the "but Gorsuch" argument, where conservatives who sold their soul to Trump justify that choice by saying that they otherwise would not have gotten such a wonderful conservative as Neil Gorsuch onto the Supreme Court.

There are at least three problems with that rationalization. First, Gorsuch is an extremist. He is an extremist with an elite education and top credentials, but he is an extremist nonetheless. Second, Gorsuch's etremism is nothing compared to some of Trump's other judicial picks.

Third, and most importantly, the Gorsuch appointment was only possible because Republicans threw away the Constitution and longstanding political norms by preventing President Obama from filling an empty seat on the Court for more than a year.

Again, there are tribalist arguments that Republicans and conservatives invoke to justify these things (including the long-since-debunked idea that Robert Bork did not receive a fair hearing in 1987).

But the point here is that a person who is a moderate conservative (or even merely a principled one) who is not an apologist for whatever the Republicans are currently trying to pull off would not be happy about any of this.

Returning to the larger question, are there any conservative thinkers who show any indication that they are not merely NeverTrumpers (of which there are, thankfully, quite a few) but are also willing to take policy positions that are actually non-extreme?

To be clear, I am on the record arguing that liberals and Democrats in the U.S. are now moderates on every issue, with even their supposedly extreme leftists fitting comfortably into the moderate left both historically and relative to other countries.

As but one example, Bernie Sanders's policy position on the estate tax in 2016 was to allow a $7,000,000 exemption rather than the current eleven million dollars per couple. Not exactly creeping expropriation.

Even if I am wrong in characterizing liberals and Democrats as moderate, however, that is different from saying that they would not be willing to compromise with even non-moderate Republicans who were simply looking for workable solutions.

Who might lead the way from the right? In a recent op-ed, two respected political scientists and a left-leaning columnist argued that "a large group of influential conservative thinkers — Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, Max Boot, George F. Will, Peter Wehner, William Kristol and Tom Nichols, to name just a few — [wants] a problem-solving Republican Party, a necessity for our political system to operate."

Rubin is by far the most plausible person on that list to serve as a reasonable conservative. The problem is that most of her commentary is dedicated to trashing Trump and Trumpists rather than making policy arguments from the right.

She is especially good, for example, when talking about impeachment-related matters, but it is possible to read column after column by her without seeing anything identifiably conservative on policy.

To be clear, Rubin does a wonderful job of showing how cowardly Republicans are being in the face of Trumpism, and she frequently writes about how principled conservatives need to consider breaking off from the too-far-gone Frankenstein's monster that is the party they once loved.

And what are those conservative principles? When the rush of news allows Rubin to write about anything other than Trump's manifest unfitness for office, she essentially reveals that her version of conservatism could reside quite comfortably on the center and rightward end of the spectrum of today's Democratic Party.

She makes it clear that she is a foreign policy hawk, and she would have liked a "better" deal with Iran on nuclear proliferation. On the other hand, she is reasonable enough to understand that opposing the initial deal is not a reason to trash it today. In any event, she seems to hold neocon views that give someone like me pause but that are indistinguishable from the hawks in the Democratic Party.

On economics, Rubin holds out the hope that there really are conservatives who understand that the Democrats already occupy the center, center-right, and center-left of the spectrum. Other than a nervous tic regarding budget deficits (which I will discuss at length in a forthcoming column), Rubin could fit easily into any non-Republican policy discussion.

During the debates over the Republicans health care destruction bills this year, for example, Rubin joined some other conservatives by being willing to say out loud what Republicans were trying to hide: those bills were efforts to take away health care from millions of Americans in order to lavish trillions of dollars in tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans.

But it goes even further. Rubin recently wrote this: "We should worry far more about who bears the tax burden and who receives the benefits of government spending than we do the size of the tax cut and of the budget."

Holy cow! This is what reasonable moderation used to look like.

Current Republicans have taken Ronald Reagan's admonition that "the government is not the solution to the problem -- government is the problem" and turned it into an obsession with the size of the government and a rejection of all discussion of redistribution as "class warfare."

Rubin counters that we should care about progressivity on both the taxing and spending sides of the ledger and not worry about size.

Unfortunately, I have not seen anything remotely similar coming from the other NeverTrumpers. The most that I have seen is kumbaya pieces by Peter Wehner expressing supposedly conservative principles at such a level of abstraction that no liberal would disagree categorically ("limited government and economic liberty," "moral traditionalism that conserves our capacity for liberty by producing responsible citizens," and engagement in international affairs to "be a force for good in the world"), even if we would surely disagree on many specifics.

In the end, however, we are still looking at a Republican Party and a conservative movement that would be deeply dysfunctional even without Trump in the picture. Responsible conservatism does not require being mindlessly pro-business (or pro-Gorsuch), and in many cases it requires the opposite, but precious few conservatives are willing to break with party orthodoxy.

The pundits who are currently decrying the Republicans' onset of insanity are doing important work, but they present few if any reasons to be confident that a post-Trump Republican Party could be brought back to something resembling reasonable conservatism, pragmatism, or problem solving.

Neil H. Buchanan is an economist and legal scholar and a professor of law at George Washington University. He teaches tax law, tax policy, contracts, and law and economics. His research addresses the long-term tax and spending patterns of the federal government, focusing on budget deficits, the national debt, health care costs and Social Security.