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Democrats should nab GOP reformers’ ideas

The Republican Party’s reformist movement — if it’s big enough to be called a movement — recently published a set of policy proposals: “Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class.” Most of the ideas in this pamphlet are good. In fact, Democrats should appropriate them.

The Republican reformers rightly emphasize job creation. Make the long-term unemployed more hirable, they say, by subsidizing their wages for a while after they return to work. Give them more information about work in other states, as well as grants or cheap loans to cover moving costs. Get rid of stupid licensing requirements. (Hairdressers need nine months of full-time training and a license?) In states that don’t have them, start work-sharing programs so that employers can cope with temporary falls in demand by cutting hours rather than workers.

The reformers’ ideas on relieving poverty are good, too — and equally appealing, or so you’d imagine, to open-minded Democrats. Build on the popular and successful welfare reforms of the 1990s (enacted by a Republican Congress and a Democratic president) by extending work requirements beyond Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to other parts of the safety net, such as federal housing assistance. Limit Social Security Disability Insurance to people who are actually disabled. Make the safety net more effective by consolidating its bewildering tangle of different programs into fewer schemes or even a single “universal credit.”

There’s more in the same vein. Help poor families by clearing penalties for being married out of the tax and benefit systems. Increase the child credit for low-income families, especially in the year a child is born, to cover lost wages. Simplify and strengthen financial regulation by raising capital requirements for big banks. Remove regulatory barriers to innovation in education. Give students and parents more and better information about schools and colleges, and the power to act on it. Give colleges a stake in their students’ success by making them repay part of defaulted loans. And so on.

It would be splendid if the Republican Party in Congress simply adopted the reformers’ agenda. Conceivably, this could happen, even if it isn’t very likely. Bits and pieces of the manifesto have the backing of a leading Republican politician or two. Nonetheless, the Republican Party does have a problem with “Room to Grow.”

Intellectually, smarter and smaller government fit together pretty well, but for propaganda purposes, you can’t prioritize both. Forced to choose, most Republicans in Congress would rather just stick it to Washington and, in Grover Norquist’s memorable phrasing, get government “down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.”

Ideally, one would hope for an alliance of centrist Democrats and pragmatic Republicans to take forward what’s best in reform conservatism. You only need to think about health care reform to see how unlikely that is. Obamacare began as a conservative proposal. Once a Democratic administration took it up, conservatives realized they didn’t just oppose it but also despised it. Suggesting improvements, as opposed to scrapping it altogether, became a treasonous act. If Democrats were to get behind the idea of a universal safety-net credit, say, you could expect congressional Republicans to oppose it implacably.

Tactically speaking, that ought to commend it to Democrats all the more. The notion, popular on the left, that Republicans literally want to make the poor and unemployed worse off — that the party is “monomaniacally focused on redistributing income upward” — is a feeble excuse for failing to engage with the reformers’ ideas. Better to steal the good ones, which is always worth doing, and divide and confuse your opponents at the same time.

You can also make the charge that the Republicans are bereft of ideas — opposed, in fact, to the idea of having ideas — all the more plausible. And would it kill the Democrats to bring a few of conservatism’s smart reformers over to their side?

Bigger government isn’t much of a slogan. For Democrats, smarter government is much better — tried and tested, too. They should be praising and plundering reform conservatism, not sneering at it.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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