A lot has changed since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office. Source: Ronald Reagan Library via Bloomberg
A lot has changed since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office. Source: Ronald Reagan Library via Bloomberg

Eric Cantor's defeat in a primary this week poses a tricky problem for Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel. The victorious David Brat slammed Cantor for being soft on immigration, calling it “the most symbolic issue that captures the difference” between the two men. The Journal, however, explicitly favors open borders.

Strassel's solution is an inventive one. “Yes, immigration came up in the race,” she allows, without even mentioning Brat's position. But what “really resonated” with Virginia Republican voters, she claims, was a post-election interview in which Brat endorsed cutting the top income-tax rate to 25 percent.

This marvelous feat of spin behind her, Strassel then makes a broader argument about the future of conservatism. Her target is a group of people who have “taken to arguing that the whole free-market, supply-side, Reaganesque agenda is passe” and whose “central idea” is that “conservatives need to embrace government to better endear themselves to the 'middle class.'”

She thinks she's talking about me and the other contributors to a recent book called “Room to Grow.” Strassel spends the bulk of her column trashing it, but can produce no quotes to justify her descriptions. Our actual central idea is that the Reaganite agenda should be updated to account for the fact that circumstances have changed since 1981, partly because Reagan succeeded.

Strassel concedes that cutting the top income-tax rate is harder now that it is 40 percent rather than 70 percent, as it was in 1981. She says, though, that we now have new “selling points” for cutting that tax rate, such as stories about “abusive IRS bureaucrats.”

In Strassel's view, only the selling points should change: “Good economic policy doesn't have a sell-by date. (Adam Smith? Ugh. He is just so 1776.) What can require periodic overhaul is political messaging.”

What she is unwilling to consider is that reducing the top tax rate from 40 percent would probably generate fewer economic benefits than cutting it from 70 percent, and that we should therefore put rate cuts lower on our list of priorities. In other words, it's more than “selling points” that should change when the world does.

She misunderstands the political success of Reagan's tax cuts as well. In her telling, cutting tax rates helps the economy, this effect pleases voters and that's the whole story. Voters doubtless appreciated how tax cuts helped them in this indirect way. Surely they also appreciated getting to keep more of their own money. Income taxes are not the burden they once were on middle-class families, so it makes sense to combine traditional supply-side reforms with other conservative policies that have tangible and direct benefits for most people.

In the book, Robert Stein writes that expanding the tax credit for children is one such policy. Strassel won't have it. She argues that it's “redistribution,” and therefore terrible. Stein explains that entitlement programs transfer money from parents to childless adults. Something like a larger child credit is the only way to keep those programs while reducing the redistribution. It's not a case Strassel refutes, or even mentions. It's not a flat tax, so she's done thinking.

Other conservatives shouldn't give these ideas a hearing either, she writes, because “liberal commentators” are their “biggest cheerleaders.” I guess Strassel hasn't been reading the New York Times' Paul Krugman, who shares her disdain for the child credit and “Room to Grow.” Or maybe she thinks Senator Mike Lee, the Utah Republican who sponsored a bill to expand the child credit, is a liberal commentator. It's not the only strange way she categorizes people. Parents are a special interest group in her view ("Solyndra, parents, welfare, farmers and so on”).

The authors of “Room to Grow,” Strassel says, “are clear that politics, not principle, needs to drive conservative policy.” None of us believe that, or said it, clearly or unclearly. We want policies that apply conservative principles in ways that improve the national condition. We think that should be our principal “selling point.”

Brat's victory suggests that a lot of Republicans dislike a party elite they see as too tied to big business and too little concerned about Main Street. The public at large also dislikes these traits in Republicans. The conjunction of these facts suggests a political opportunity for the party in demonstrating that conservatism can directly benefit most Americans, not just those in boardrooms.

“Room to Grow” presents many ideas on how to do that. A prerequisite, though, is not taking direction from Wall Street -- or, in this case, the Wall Street Journal.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.