WASHINGTON -- The last few years have been the most decisive and divisive ideological period since the early 1980s, perhaps since the late 1960s. Barack Obama has pursued Keynesian economics on a breathtaking scale, racking up three deficits in excess of a trillion dollars and presiding over a national credit downgrade. In a march of partisan votes, he passed a health reform plan that relies on unprecedented federal powers to reorganize one-sixth of the economy.
The ultimate success or failure of grand executive ambition is measured by its effect on the other ideological side. Opposition to the Reagan revolution culminated in Walter Mondale -- earnest and hapless. Resistance to the Great Society suffered a landslide defeat along with Barry Goldwater.
Obama's effect on conservatives has been mixed. He united them in the 2010 congressional elections, which put an end to the inventive period of the Obama revolution. But Obama's ambition has also revealed a tension within the opposition.
On one side there are Rejectionist Conservatives, who come in a variety of forms. There are libertarians who view federal taxation, except to fund a few night watchman roles, as theft. There are tea party activists who believe that any federal power must be specifically enumerated in the text of the Constitution -- and then interpret the Constitution as if it were the Articles of Confederation. And then there is Ron Paul, who seeks to overturn the Lincoln and Hamilton revolutions.
But Obama's overreach has also produced another conservative reaction -- a Reform Conservatism. The key figure here is Paul Ryan, the main author of two House Republican budgets. The movement's intellectual headquarters is National Affairs, a journal of small but potent distribution. Its brain trust includes thinkers such as Yuval Levin, James Capretta and Peter Wehner.
The reform movement -- being prone to long, self-reflective policy articles -- is not hard to summarize.
First, it asserts that America's massive fiscal crisis is a result of public-sector inefficiency. So it looks for ways to achieve the ends of the welfare state both through more private means and more efficient public means.
Second, it asserts that America's economic challenge is also a function of public-sector inefficiency and seeks above all to encourage growth -- by streamlining the tax code, reducing burdens on competitiveness and showing confidence in market mechanisms and consumer pressure.