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Here come the 'Reformacons'

| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Scott Winship is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and one of the architects of the “reform conservative” movement. He spoke to the Trib regarding the philosophical tenets behind it.

Q: For the uninitiated, what's the reform conservative movement all about?

A: Like any movement, it's actually more diverse than it probably looks from the outside. But I think what holds it together is a view that the Republican Party and conservatism in general has not faced up to the modern challenges facing the middle class and offers a positive agenda that remains consistent with the conservative principles of federalism and small government, but which really does speak to the anxieties of the middle class.

I think the other value that is pretty unanimously shared in the group is the importance of markets and of local knowledge when it comes to addressing problems. And so a lot of the proposals that we've put out try to address trends that I think the Left is seen as being more concerned about — but addressing them using means that are conservative.

Q: What trends are you referring to specifically?

A: My own chapter (in the Manhattan Institute's conservative agenda) is on anti-poverty policy. The thrust of it is that we ought to be concerned about the perverse incentives that are embedded in government subsidies.

We ought to rely on local providers of child investment services rather than have a top-down approach that sort of says that Head Start is going to be the thing that every kid needs and we are going to run it from Washington.

I think the chapters on education differ from liberal approaches in that they don't start with just throwing more money at problems, but instead they try to arm parents and kids with more information about how successful colleges are, for example, in graduating students, information on the sorts of returns to different types of academic programs.

Q: How do you get the middle class to pay attention to these ideas?

A: I think the middle class today is beset by anxieties on the one hand but on the other hand (it is) very much concerned about the size of government, long-term deficits, things like that.

So I think the key is to prioritize the issues of the middle class, to talk more about middle class families than about entrepreneurs and job creators. They certainly are important, but I think most of the “Reformacons” would agree that in (the) 2012 (presidential campaign), the message ended up being all about job creators and innovators, and that just doesn't speak to the lives of the typical middle-class families.

I think partly that it's just a shift in emphasis on who you are concerned about and partly it's proposing new solutions.

Q: How large a role do you see reform conservatives playing in moving the Republican agenda forward during the next presidential campaign?

A: I think (reform conservatism) will be a strong influence in 2016. I think a number of the folks whose names are tossed around as being potential (presidential) candidates certainly are listening to our idea.

I think the likely Democrat nominee, (Hillary) Clinton, will offer a pretty strong middle-class agenda from a liberal perspective, and I think Republicans will not want to be in the position of repeating 2012.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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