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A New Kind of Catholic Republican Faces Old Obstacles


American Enterprise Institute

Mark Stricherz - published on 03/09/15

Reformacons' Pro-family proposals inch forward in GOP.
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WASHINGTON — Dear God, our Father who art in heaven, as I reflect on my day here on earth, am I right to think that free enterprise is fairer to more of Your creatures than socialism? Right? Right on, God, right on. If not, please show me the way, Lord.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month, Arthur C. Books told an audience he says a similar prayer each night.

"This is my examination of conscience, and I recommend it to you. And what it’s about is free enterprise. This is not about money. It’s not about getting power out of Washington. It’s about fairness and opportunity," Brooks said, standing behind a podium on a large stage at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Maryland.

Brooks, 50, is the president of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., a venerable conservative-leaning think tank. He argues that capitalism has helped the world’s poor more than socialism. He likes to invoke the World-Bank estimate that the share of persons in absolute poverty levels has dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent. "There has been an 80 percent decrease in poverty over the last 40 years," Brooks reminded the audience. "An 80 percent decrease in poverty.”

Since he took over at AEI in 2009, Brooks has hired two policy experts on working- and middle-class Americans. Ramesh Ponnuru, 40, proposes that the federal child tax credit should rise from $1,000 to $5,000 per child. James  C. Capretta proposes scrapping the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a federal tax credit to those without access to employer coverage. (For Democratic centrists, the steep drop in the country’s jobless rate the figure was 10 percent in October 2009 and 5.5 percent in February — shows that the Obama administration’s economic stimulus plan of 2009 has helped ordinary Americans).

What unites Brooks, Ponnuru, and Capretta is their shared faith as Catholics. Each man draws on Catholic practice or teaching for his ideas.

"Catholic social teaching has a preferential option for the poor, but this means helping the less powerful. It doesn’t mean socialism. Socialism has never helped the poor,” Brooks said in an interview after his speech last month.

“I aspire to have ‘Catholic’ before ‘conservative’ in my life,” Ponnuru told America, a Jesuit magazine, last summer.

“Catholic social teaching is a treasure – a genuine roadmap for building a just society,” Capretta and his co-author, Father Thomas V. Berg, wrote in 2012. Capretta, a Notre Dame alum, is also a former lobbyist for the Catholic Healthcare Association.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a Catholic, has also proposed helping working-class Americans. In his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign, Santorum proposed tripling the personal deduction for each child and using the federal tax code to help working- and middle-class Americans. Yet Santorum’s proposals have not been resurrected in conservative policy shops, media outlets, or congressional legislation. By contrast, the proposals of Capretta and Ponnuru have.

Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah on March 4 unveiled a tax-reform plan that included increasing the child-tax credit to $2,500 per child. And Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee on March 2 floated a vague plan similar to Capretta’s that would “provide financial assistance to help Americans keep the coverage they picked for a transition period.” In addition, Ponuru and two other Catholic policy wonks, Ross Douthat of The New York Times and Brad Wilcox, a visiting scholar at AEI
have jobs in the media and conservative movement. Indeed, The New York Times Magazine wrote a cover story about the policy mavens last July. (Not all of these wonks are Catholic, however).

These policy wonks are called “reformacons” (Others call them “reformicons” or “reformocons”). They say the Republican Party must reform or change its domestic policy agenda to appeal to middle- and working-class Americans. Although reformacons want to reform health-care and tax laws, they also propose changing education, labor, energy, regulatory, and financial laws. "The demonstrable failure of the liberal welfare state provides an opportunity to advance conservative reforms, firmly rooted in our constitutional order, that advance the aspirations of middle-class Americans," April Ponnuru, wife of Ramesh, and two other authors wrote in the preface to Room to Grow, a 2014 collection of essays by conservative writers. 

Reformacons don’t represent a new approach by the GOP to domestic policy. Rather, they represent a new tendency within the socially conservative wing of the party. Now they confront an old political problem, a problem economic moderates in the Democratic Party faced in the 1980s after they created the Democratic Leadership Council: how to rise in a party with the support of intellectuals and ordinary voters but few activists.

For years, Republicans have argued for reducing the top marginal tax rate and broad-based tax cuts. President Ronald Reagan slashed the top marginal rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. President George W. Bush’s tax plans reduced the top marginal rate from 39.6 to 35 percent.

The tax cuts have helped the Republican Party’s affluent constituents and parts of the middle class. Their effect on working- and middle-class Americans is disputed. In the last 40 years, American social mobility has declined or held steady, according to numerous studies. The share of Americans who are not working or not looking for work has risen to 37 percent. And 72 percent of Americans said that government economic policies since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2010 have benefited the wealthy more than the non-rich.

Reformacons say their proposals are broad. Defending Santorum’s proposal for a larger child-tax deduction, Douthat argued that “(a) tax cut for families doesn’t just benefit the minority of Americans who happen to be raising children at any given time. Because every adult begins life as a child, it benefits almost every American born and raised after the tax cut goes into effect.” This argument is misleading. To be sure, the long-term beneficiaries of the proposal might be children. But the short-term beneficiaries are parents who pay taxes, a sub-group of taxpayers. Indeed, Rubio’s proposal to replace the earned-income tax credit with a wage subsidy program for single childless workers is the inverse of Santorum and Ponnuru’s proposals. It would benefit the unmarried, another sub-group of taxpayers.

The Republican Party is made up of three wings — cultural, foreign policy, and economic conservatives. Reformacons don’t represent a fourth wing. Instead, reformacons make up an economically moderate clique within the socially conservative wing of the party. For the other wings of the GOP, the reformacons’ targeted tax breaks are tolerated rather than embraced. Consider the reception the reformacons received at CPAC, the annual gathering of the conservative movement’s generals, lieutenants, and foot soldiers. Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, had the most charitable words for reformacons’ proposals to help families. “I think it is very intriguing, very helpful. It’s more of a strategic and tactical move than a philosophic or existential one. They’re not arguing for higher taxes, for example,” Norquist said, arching his eyebrows for emphasis.

Robert Ehrlich, who is mulling a presidential run in 2016, gave reformacons a more muted endorsement. The former governor of deep-blue Maryland commented on the reformacons’ proposals in general rather than specifically.

“Basically anything that works; I think it’s similar to school choice,” Ehrlich said.

Asked to endorse reformacon proposals, Ehrlich demurred. “I like being a party of ideas. It’s important that we are for things,” Ehrlich said.

Norquist and Ehrlich represent the more secular establishment wing of the GOP. The editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal have criticized reformacons’ proposals in stronger terms. Kimberley Strassel said thatRoom to Grow operates from the idea that “conservatives need to embrace government to better appeal to the middle class.”

Conservative movement activists dismiss reformacon proposals as apologists for statism. Former Rep. Allen West of Florida rejected the reformacons’ premise that distinct social classes exist in the country. “First of all, it’s middle income not middle class,” West said in an interview at CPAC. “The whole thing is a question of individual freedom vs. the federal government, and I think the federal government has too much power.” West added that he supports an elimination of taxes on health-care plans rather than credits for individuals without insurance.

For ordinary conservative activists at CPAC, reformacons do not exist at all. Inside the Prince George’s Exhibit Hall on February 28 were more than 50 conservative vendors and organizations. The groups included Conservative Atheists, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. By contrast, reformacons had no booths inside the hall. The AEI had one booth. Yet the slogan on the organization’s banner – “Expanding Liberty, Increasing Individual Opportunity, Strengthening Free Enterprise” – reflected a worldview closer to libertarianism than Catholic social thought.

Among the GOP’s presidential candidates, reformacons have had more success. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida hired April Ponnuru, wife of Ramesh, as a policy advisor. Rubio sponsored a reformacon proposal. The moves suggest that reformacons have made gains since 2008. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas criticized economic conservatives, but endorsed few economic proposals to help the party’s downscale constituents.

Yet reformacons occupy a junior position among GOP presidential hopefuls. Douthat criticized Bush and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin for not endorsing family-friendly tax reform, saying each was appealing to the party’s wealthy donors. Ehrlich said Douthat’s criticism was “pseudo-populist stuff. A lot of donors give $25,” Ehrlich said.

And Walker showed no knowledge of reformacons at all. At CPAC, this reporter asked Walker his response to Douthat’s op-ed and policy ideas. “I don’t know. I haven’t read it,” Walker said before sitting down for an interview with a conservative radio talk show host.

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