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Sunday, December 4, 2016

WASHINGTON — Right before our eyes, American conservatism is becoming something very different from what it once was. Yet this transformation is happening by stealth because moderates are too afraid to acknowledge what all their senses tell them.

Last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments on health care were the most dramatic example of how radical tea partyism has displaced mainstream conservative thinking. It’s not just that the law’s individual mandate was, until very recently, a conservative idea. Even conservative legal analysts were insisting it was impossible to imagine the court declaring the health care mandate unconstitutional, given its past decisions.

So imagine the shock when conservative justices repeatedly spouted views closely resembling the tweets and talking points issued by organizations of the sort funded by the Koch brothers. Don’t take it from me. Charles Fried, solicitor general for Ronald Reagan, told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein that it was absurd for conservatives to pretend that the mandate created a market in health care. “The whole thing is just a canard that’s been invented by the tea party … ,” Fried said, “and I was astonished to hear it coming out of the mouths of the people on that bench.”

Staunchly conservative circuit court Judges Jeffrey Sutton and Laurence Silberman must have been equally astonished, since both argued that overturning the law would amount to judicial overreach. Yet moderate opinion bends over backward to act as if this is an intellectually close question.

Similarly, House passage of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget, with its steep cuts in the tax rates on the wealthy and sweeping reductions in programs for the poor, is an enormous step rightward from the budget policies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Faced with growing deficits, Reagan and Bush both supported substantial tax increases.

A small hint of how this push to the right moves moderates away from moderation came in an effort last week to use an amendment on the House floor to force a vote on the deficit-reduction proposals offered by the commission headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton.

You only learned in paragraphs buried deep in the news stories that the House was not even asked to consider the actual commission plan. To cobble together bipartisan support, sponsors of the ersatz Simpson-Bowles amendment kept all of the commission’s spending cuts but slashed the amount it prescribed for tax increases in half. See how relentless pressure from the right turns self-styled moderates into conservatives? If there’s a cave-in, it’s always to starboard.