Michael Gerson

Third, Reform Conservatism argues that America's social problem is largely a function of the collapse of social capital among the poor and seeks to transform the safety net -- encouraging responsibility and providing training toward integration in the broader stream of American life.

Reform Conservatism is less ideologically ambitious than Rejectionist Conservatism. It would replace Obamacare, for example, rather than simply abolish it. Similarly, it focuses on education reform -- school accountability, parental empowerment and teacher quality -- rather than on the demolition of the Department of Education. Reform Conservatism tends to be politically pragmatic. In exchange for serious Medicare reform, for example, it would certainly accept a higher portion of GDP taken in taxes to ease cuts in discretionary spending -- if those taxes are designed in a way that doesn't undermine economic growth.

In this political season, Rejectionist Conservatism and Reform Conservatism have been at odds and, on occasion, at war. We've seen this conflict in tea party primary insurgencies against establishment Republicans. All of the GOP presidential candidates were forced to make rhetorical concessions to the rejectionist wing.

But the conflict, in the end, was a not a close one. Speaker John Boehner has adopted Ryan's reform approach as the de facto ideology of the House Republican majority. Mitt Romney has embraced the outlines of the Ryan budget and Medicare reform with more enthusiasm that I suspected he would. The internal struggle within conservatism has been difficult, but the outcome has been decisive. Reform Conservatism is intellectually and politically ascendant. It would be the governing agenda of the next Republican administration.

This agenda, in Ryan's expression, has weaknesses -- which I will address more fully in a follow-up column. It is best on the fiscal crisis -- which threatens all other purposes of government. It is least creative on the social problem -- which is prioritized last and suffers from being overwhelmed by the fiscal crisis.

But the debate in American public life has moved on. It is now between Reform Conservatism and Obama's surprisingly unreconstructed liberalism -- the real battle to come.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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