In his essay, Dionne begins with a large error but raises three important questions. He mistakenly sets President Obama’s agenda — particularly the Affordable Care Act — as the definition of political centrism, then judges the sincerity of conservative reformers by how closely they orbit this version of liberalism. By this standard, he admits, reform conservatives are “destined to let progressives down.” Well, yes. One would hope. Because reform conservatism is intended as an alternative to a tired progressivism.
Dionne appropriately asks, while dating himself, “Where’s the beef?” (Quoting Walter Mondale from 30 years ago, who was quoting a television commercial popular at the time.) One regular, quarterly response is made in National Affairs, the journal of reform conservatism. This ideological tendency has been recently distilled into a collection of essays titled “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class,” featuring distinctly market-oriented proposals to provide universal health coverage, improve access to higher education and redesign the social safety net (among other interesting ideas). The agenda is not fully formed — but it is probably more developed at this stage of the election cycle than either Bill Clinton’s New Democrat agenda or George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism.