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The New York Times

 

Can The G.O.P. Be A Party Of Ideas?

July 18, 2014

By Nicole Gelinas

In May, a handful of prominent legislators gathered at a Beltway think tank, along with some writers and policy experts, to discuss, as the event's organizers somberly put it, “conservative policy options to further the prosperous society President Lyndon Johnson described in his ‘Great Society' address 50 years ago.” If this seemed strange, the venue and cast were even stranger: the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of right-leaning ideology, filled with Republicans, speaking in a language most unlike the one we've heard in recent years.

There was Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, fresh from his easy primary win in Kentucky, who said in his keynote remarks that the time had come for the G.O.P. to stop being the handmaiden to Wall Street and instead attend to the anxieties of the middle class. “Our average voter is not John Galt,” McConnell said, referring to the visionary hero of Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” that sacred text of the libertarian right. “Hymns to entrepreneurialism are, as a practical matter, largely irrelevant.” Senator Mike Lee of Utah, a Tea Party hero elected in the wave of 2010, was there promoting a child-tax-credit proposal. South Carolina's Tim Scott, one of the Senate's two sitting African-Americans, scolded his party for not having “spent enough time figuring out how to unleash the American dream in some of our strongest and poorest areas of the country.”

And then there was Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, its second-highest-ranking figure and, most assumed, the next speaker of the House. Cantor's rise in power and visibility over the last six years was largely a result of his role in devising the Republican strategy of unbending opposition — always, everywhere — to anything Barack Obama proposed. Cantor built strong ties to Wall Street and to wealthy, conservative donors, and yet here he was, too, espousing the new reformist principles: that the G.O.P. was letting down its actual base, by which he meant “the bulk of the people in this country” who “are feeling that this country is not there for them.” Sounding like a graduate of the Joe Biden School of Empathy, Cantor told the audience that he himself has found, when imagining a path toward better policy, that “it's very helpful sometimes to think about the working family or maybe the single mom who at the end of a hard day has put her kids to bed and then has to face how she is going to make ends meet and pay the bills at the end of the month.”

Strangest of all, the true stars of the proceedings were the intellectuals whose work was showcased that morning and had seeped into the legislators' rhetoric. Two young men, in particular, were responsible for this change: Yuval Levin, a former policy adviser to George W. Bush and founder of the earnest quarterly journal National Affairs, and Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review and columnist at Bloomberg View. Each is an intellectual prodigy in his 30s, and together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine — orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street — and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.

The event was a success by almost every measure. In the following days, praise flowed predictably from the conservative media — National Review, The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page — but also Mike Allen's Playbook column on Politico, which quoted snippets from the “conservative manifesto for the middle class,” and The New Republic. The magazine published a skeptical profile of Levin in 2013, but now it conceded, “Liberals should take reform conservatives seriously,” because they are putting forth “valid conservative ideas like increasing the child tax credit or converting antipoverty programs into a universal credit.”

The reformicons, it seemed, had captured their party's imagination. But three weeks later, on June 10, the narrative of the newly in-touch G.O.P. met the colder reality of politics, with its pitiless winnowing of winners and losers. Eric Cantor, in what was supposed to be a cakewalk primary, succumbed to David Brat, a far-right challenger so obscure that national anti-establishment organizations like FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth, which poured millions into other insurgencies, kept out of this one.

“I hadn't even been following the race, as it seems almost no one had, since there wasn't really any serious talk of his being in jeopardy,” Levin wrote to me in an email the morning after Cantor's loss, cannily distancing himself from the soon-to-be-former majority leader. “I didn't know him well but had talked with him now and then about particular issues, especially health care, when asked.”

Ponnuru also sent an email to me, which he later posted on National Review's website, saying he regretted Cantor's defeat, because he had helped bring attention to reformist ideas. But he speculated that “the demands of reaching a consensus in his conference precluded him from being as out front on these [reform] ideas as some senators have been.” He added: “Ironically, perhaps, one of the main themes that Dave Brat used against him — that Republicans were too identified with big business — is one of ours, as well. I think Republicans, and Cantor specifically, might be in a different place if they had done more, earlier, on a Main Street agenda.”

Still, a new story line emerged. Cantor became the losing face of reformism, the “poster boy” (as The Wall Street Journal called him) and “one of the patron saints” (Ezra Klein) of an “upscale faction of the party calling themselves ‘reform conservatives' ” (Politico). The reformist wonks, crunching through numbers and looking for an alternative to the six-year strategy of “just say no,” were now depicted as the elite establishment of the G.O.P. And as Republican lawmakers and strategists look ahead to November and beyond, there was suddenly a new worry. Instead of saving the party from itself, the reformers risked being consumed by the Republicans' ongoing identity crisis.

When intellectuals can do nothing else, they start a magazine.” Or so goes the famous line by Irving Howe, the beau ideal of the politically engaged writer and a founder of the left-wing intellectual magazine Dissent. His heirs include Yuval Levin. The son of Israeli immigrants, Levin grew up in New Jersey in the '80s and at 37 has been immersed in the intricacies of governance for most of his adult life. While a student at American University in Washington, he interned on Capitol Hill during the Clinton administration; later he took a break from graduate work at the University of Chicago and joined the Bush White House, where he became a policy adviser, helping to draft health care proposals in Bush's second term. The policy went nowhere, and Levin went back to Chicago and the study of political philosophy.

After Obama's sweeping victory in 2008, Levin was one of many conservative intellectuals who, as he put it to me this past March, “were trying to figure out what the hell this new world looked like.” He had been writing for National Review and The Weekly Standard, but they are political journals, and Levin saw an urgent need on the right for serious policy ideas. Out of this came National Affairs, the quarterly he founded and continues to edit, with a small staff, out of his office at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” As Levin said: “The magazine tries to sit at the intersection of political ideas and public policy. That's where a lot of the action has to happen. You have to persuade conservatives and voters in general. And you need to have a coherent vision underlying a policy agenda.”

National Affairs bears a filial resemblance to The Public Interest, the legendary conservative journal edited by Irving Kristol that shuttered in 2005 after 40 years. Copies of The Public Interest, with their monotone covers, fill a shelf in Levin's bookcase, and its back issues are archived on the National Affairs website, a reminder of how Kristol modernized policy debate at time when the purposes and limits of American government were being rethought. “What rules the world is ideas,” Kristol once wrote, “because ideas define the way reality is perceived.”

Over time, this formulation has assumed new meaning. When Kristol and colleagues like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer began their project, the Great Society was at its peak, and an abundance of new programs — dealing with poverty, education and housing, among others — were ripe for analysis. But in the decades that followed, government ambition shrank, largely as a result of the critiques Kristol made. In that period the G.O.P. was often acknowledged to be the party of ideas, while Democrats seemed to have lapsed into defending various so-called interest groups. Since then, the situation has reversed. Democrats have pushed the policy debate, while Republicans have become a party of opposition. Today Republican “rule” often means obstruction, and its supposed principles sound like dogma. As for reality, it gave us the presidential prospects of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and absurdist moments, like the Republican presidential-primary debate in which all eight participants said they would reject a hypothetical deal with Democrats in which one dollar of increased taxation would be exchanged for 10 dollars of reduced spending.

This was the sterile soil in which Levin planted National Affairs, which exudes seriousness of an almost antiquated kind. Each issue is the size of a small book, unleavened by illustration or even reported narrative. The typical Levin-assigned-and-edited article leads the reader through a forced march of acronyms and statistics and of formulations like this: “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.R.W.O.A.) replaced A.F.D.C. with a new program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Under TANF, families can draw federal aid for only five years, to underline that welfare is supposed to be temporary. And where federal funding for A.F.D.C. had been open-ended, for TANF it is fixed, so that states must pay for any expansion of welfare.”

On it goes, article after article — “Taxes and the Family,” “Social Security and Work,” “Recasting Conservative Economics,” “Reality and Public Policy.” And yet with its stodgy prose, its absence of invective and red meat for the angry right, its microscopic circulation (6,000 subscribers, though some articles reach as many as 100,000 digital readers) and its one blogger who provides links to academic writings, National Affairs has become the citadel of reform conservatism. And Levin himself, soft-spoken and self-deprecating, with a quiet fervor for intellectual history and economic argument, has emerged, with no advance work or self-promotion, as “a one-man Republican brain trust,” in the words of David Frum, and “probably the pre-eminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era,” as Jonathan Chait, a political columnist for New York magazine, has written.

The descriptions are both flattering and tinged with irony, for this is not a hospitable moment for serious-minded intellectuals on the right. The place once claimed in the culture by Kristol and William F. Buckley Jr. is now inhabited by Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh and the radio host Laura Ingraham, who is widely credited with mobilizing the troops who expelled Eric Cantor from Congress. Levin is circumspect about the competing noise. What disturbs him more is the long years of silence on the front where he operates. Rather than blame the media agitators and congressional extremists for his party's lack of substance, Levin said on a recent panel devoted to “the future of conservatism” that “the policy vacuum on the right itself has been the fault for a long time of people like us.”

“In the immediate aftermath of defeat, there's a temptation to take comfort in pleasing illusions,” Ramesh Ponnuru told me this past March, over filet mignon at the Palm, the Dupont Circle steakhouse. He was recalling the shock that conservatives felt after Obama's first victory. If Levin is the reformers' big thinker, then Ponnuru, who entered Princeton just after his 17th birthday and graduated summa cum laude (in history), is its cold-eyed political realist. “The Republican ranks were full of people up and down the line,” he said, “from the average voter to sophisticated operatives, that were of the view that if we'd just been a little more pure in the Bush years, none of this would have happened, and the path to power is just to purify ourselves.”

This was understandable. The “big government” conservatism of the Bush administration alienated many on the right. There was a libertarian reaction, and it set the Tea Party aboil and helped the G.O.P. triumph in 2010. But that victory reflected the passions of only a portion of the electorate, much of it restricted to the South and the Plains states, and it also sent up a wave of fringe candidates who cost Republicans control of the Senate.

Nevertheless, the appetite for ideological purity seemed insatiable and overrode all other considerations. Even cooler heads were persuaded that Mitt Romney would coast to victory as long as he could convince the activist wing of the party that he was a true conservative. “The result of the 2012 election was more disorienting than the '08 election,” Ponnuru said. He described his futile attempt to educate House members at their annual retreat in January 2013, when Ponnuru worked through data showing that the loss couldn't be pinned on Romney alone. “As much as people say Romney was a weak candidate, he ran ahead of Senate candidates in almost every state” — a crucial point that Ponnuru mentioned to the Republican caucus. “I would have expected these guys, being political professionals, to know that,” he said. “They didn't know it. They knew that Romney lost, and they knew that they won, and that was about all they knew.”

In fact, some in Washington did know better. One was John Murray, Eric Cantor's deputy chief of staff. “There's a lot of inertia on Capitol Hill,” Murray told me last month. Debt reform and tax reform “were taking up a lot of oxygen” — and crowding out many other issues that most voters were worried about: rising health care costs, exorbitant college-tuition expenses, jobs that didn't pay enough. “I was frustrated, because I wanted us to be more offensively postured around issues like how to help the middle class.”

In October 2011, Murray formed an advocacy group called YG Network — YG as in Young Guns, the tag adopted by Cantor and two other stars in the Republican House, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy. Since it was formed as a nonprofit, YG Network operated independently of the politicians from whom it took its name. Murray envisioned it as a kind of processing plant for policies that could be pitched toward middle-class voters. A self-described “money guy,” he raised more than $12 million for the cause in 2012. The next year, he commissioned polls and focus groups with middle-class voters in four midsize cities. Researchers sorted respondents into two groups of around a dozen people. One group consisted of self-identified Tea Party supporters, the other of moderate swing voters. What was interesting to Murray was that, aside from a few hot-button ideological issues, the two groups sounded alike. Their paramount concerns were nagging “kitchen-table-centric” issues. In Murray's paraphrase: “Fuel prices are up. Grocery bills are up. The kids are home now, but who's going to help us get them to college?” The respondents were not Obama fans, but they also felt as if the Republicans weren't helping them, either.

Murray was aware of the various reform proposals being published in National Affairs and elsewhere, but, he said, “there's a difference between how an academic and policy wonk approaches the discussion and how a political-communication person does it.” To help sell these ideas more widely, he turned to April Ponnuru, Ramesh's wife, who was working as a senior policy adviser to Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican. In December 2013, Ponnuru left her job on the Hill to become YG Network's policy director. “It's the only game in town,” she told me. “Most of the other activities have been negative and destructive.” She, too, talked at length about how the party was out of touch. “The biggest problem is that the politicians don't represent the people. We're identified with the rich and big business,” she said, ticking off a list of constituencies that Republicans have alienated: “Single women, Hispanics, young people.” Also as a wife and mother, she had serious doubts about any movement “that can offer nothing to a married woman with three children at the bottom half” of the economic heap.

Ponnuru's first step was to organize a brainstorming session with her husband, Levin and Peter Wehner (who, like Levin, was an adviser for George W. Bush and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center). In widely read articles that offended many on the right, Wehner had been urging Republicans to repudiate the extreme wing of their party. The fifth person present was Kate O'Beirne, a former National Review editor who was now a policy adviser to YG Network.

The challenge was turning policy into politics — how to get these ideas out to more lawmakers than the handful who had been closely following the reformists' work. The group batted around possibilities — a big public-policy conference, a statement of principles — before settling on, perhaps unsurprisingly, “a collection of essays that we would refine and discuss at a conference,” April Ponnuru recalled. The participants in the conference would be drawn from the interlocking worlds of think tanks and politics, and the expectation was that the time spent working through and refining policy ideas would bring the groups closer together and result in a more rigorous, politically realistic vetting.

The resulting collection of essays, “Room to Grow,” was intended to repackage those ideas into a simple manifesto. Levin, Ramesh Ponnuru and Wehner would all write theme-setting articles — on, respectively, “a conservative governing vision,” “the wisdom of the Constitution” and “the anxieties and worries of Middle America” — and April Ponnuru would recruit policy specialists on subjects ranging from Wall Street regulation to K-12 education. Among those writers was Michael R. Strain, a 32-year-old resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, whose article “A Jobs Agenda for the Right” led off a recent issue of National Affairs and included a raft of reformist proposals, from financial incentives for employers who hire workers off unemployment rolls to a suggestion for setting up public-transportation relays to help inner-city residents commute to the suburbs, or vice versa, depending on where the jobs are. The article attracted comment across the political spectrum — including tempered praise from liberals — along with an invitation from the Republican senator John Thune's office to participate in a phone conference in which Strain answered questions from constituents.

“I think there's more of an appetite by people to listen [to these ideas],” Strain told me. “And that includes elected leaders.” At the moment, he was also on a Twitter binge, urging House Republicans to stop stalling on passing an extension of unemployment-insurance benefits, a lifeline to the long-term unemployed. Some on the right, like Rand Paul, said extended assistance not only coddled the jobless but also stigmatized them, scaring off potential employers. Strain disagreed. “Simple statistics tell the story,” he said. “I don't see it as a conservative-liberal thing. If you look at research, the best guess is: If you let benefits expire, people will take jobs they otherwise wouldn't take, but more will drop out of the labor force entirely. Conservatives, because of their conservatism, shouldn't want that. We're the party of work, earned success, championing people to lead their own lives.”

For some legislators, this was welcome news. On Jan. 8, the day before the reformers met for their brainstorming session, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida stood in the Lyndon B. Johnson room at the Capitol — it was the 50th anniversary of Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty — and announced a plan to create a “revenue-neutral flex fund” that would disburse federal funds to the states to spend as they wished on antipoverty programs. The response was mixed. A Brookings Institution scholar said the idea was workable, but liberals warned that bloc grants give too much power to the states. At the same time, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation argued that collecting money at the federal-government level and handing it out to states is the “exact wrong way to produce conservative policies.”

But for reformers, it was a breakthrough. The plan wouldn't save a dime in the short run — in fact, it would most likely increase costs — but it met the bigger ideological goal of “incentivizing” work, a pet theme on the right since the days of Kristol and his liberal ally Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

The originator of Rubio's plan was Oren Cass, a top adviser on the Romney campaign, whom Rubio contacted after Cass originally proposed the idea in National Review. When I met Rubio at his office in March, he brought out his iPad and tapped on a file in Dropbox labeled “Upward Mobility.” He then proceeded to deliver a crisp précis of the reform credo: “My argument is what we are facing today is not just a cyclical downturn in our economy. We are facing a restructuring of the very nature of our economy. Many of the jobs that were the cornerstone of the 20th century either don't exist anymore, because they've been automated or outsourced, or their wages simply no longer have kept pace with the cost of living,” he said. “How can we get to the point where we're creating more middle-income and higher-income jobs, and how do we help people acquire the skills they need?”

Not even the most hardened Republican opposes a better-skilled work force. What sets Rubio's thinking apart is his enthusiasm for a different approach to educating and training the young. He pointed to programs established by businesses in Miami that groom high-school students in professions like construction and high-skilled auto mechanics. This “apprenticeship” idea has been gaining adherents on the left as well as the right, because it is closely tied to the mounting crisis over student debt. The discussion usually centers on graduates who enter the work force in jobs that don't pay enough to make a serious dent in the tens of thousands they owe in loans. Little is said, however, about the many young people who don't have the skills or interests to benefit from college but enroll anyway and often drop out, while still being saddled with debt. This is, of course, exactly where policy meets the cold reality of politics.

Last winter, I met Levin in Manhattan at a coffee shop near Carnegie Hall. It was a frigid morning, and he kept his coat on while he nursed a Diet Coke and pondered the past, present and future of conservatism, a topic he went on about at length the night before at the New-York Historical Society. More than 250 people showed up to hear him and William Kristol discuss Levin's new book, “The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left.” It grew out of Levin's dissertation, completed in 2010, and was published late last year to generally admiring reviews. “The Great Debate” summarizes Levin's guiding premise that the divisions between left and right are rooted in essential but opposing facets of the American character, each most clearly expressed in the work of Burke and Paine.

According to Levin, today's liberals, the heirs of Paine, believe in wholesale technical solutions to the pressing problems of their time; this is “part and parcel of a larger project to overcome the limitations placed on mankind by his natural condition.” Conservatives, on the other hand, follow Burke in his preference for continuity that extends over generations. One way to preserve that continuity is to push back against the ideas of the present generation by “imposing crucial constraints upon its ambition and its reach.”

This restates a formula Levin set forth in his first book, “Tyranny of Reason,” published in 2001, when he was 23. There, too, he drew a bright line dividing right from left. Conservatives, he wrote, “do not believe that enormous bulky social systems can be designed from scratch to achieve precisely some desired outcome. The proponents of the social scientific attitude, on the other hand, are firmly convinced of mankind's ability to pull off such flawless feats of design and control.”

This is, at best, a caricature of liberal conceptions of social science. But 13 years later, Levin clings to this view. In conversation, he describes liberal government as a “technocratic” monolith, with a master class of experts who construct and administer large-scale programs that subordinate the needs and wishes of the public to the appetites of the policy-makers themselves, who are less interested in making people's lives better than in seeing their pet theorems worked out. It is an old idea, most commonly associated with the attack on the self-infatuated, power-besotted “new class” that Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives made a generation ago. Levin has updated the argument for the Obama years, the “tyranny of reason” having resulted, for instance, in a complex health care system designed and administered by a cadre of experts, when it would be better left to the homely market. And yet the unfettered market has historically failed to protect citizens from the ravages of economic downturns, including the recent Great Recession. If any species of blind faith has in fact damaged our democracy, it was blind faith in “the market,” which gave us the deregulatory fever that began under Reagan and lasted through Obama's election in 2008.

For all his temperateness of tone, and for all the meticulously reasoned arguments that he has shepherded into the pages of National Affairs, Levin justly says his ideas are radical. He envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire reimagining of it. He accuses both parties of being filled with pork-hungry “appropriators” who still think of Washington, even in these gridlocked years, as the lavish dispenser of services. Debates today — about “runaway spending,” about big versus limited government — reduce, in most instances, to haggling over how much to dispense and who gets what. A true Burkean conservatism, Levin argues, would recast the federal government as the facilitator and supporter of local institutions who are a function of, and a contributor to, a “civil society.” “The agenda is not a moderate agenda,” Levin told me. “It's a very conservative agenda, more so than a lot of what's going on in our politics that's argued at a different pitch and so might seem like it's more radical.”

But it is also true that Levin and other reformers share the social conservatism that animates many Tea Party members. He is a protégé of the University of Chicago bioethicist Leon Kass, who led Bush's Council on Bioethics (which advised him on his policy on stem-cell research) and installed Levin, then in his mid-20s, as the council's executive director. He worked closely at the council with Robert P. George, the Princeton professor known for his uncompromising social conservatism. “Yuval is one of the pro-life movement's leading intellectuals,” George told me, pointing out that Levin serves on the board of Americans United for Life, an organization whose “legal team has been involved in every abortion-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court since Roe v. Wade,” according to its website. Today Levin doesn't bring up this aspect of his conservatism. Neither does Ramesh Ponnuru, who studied with George at Princeton and drew on his teaching in his Bush-era manifesto, “Party of Death,” about the Democrats' “extremism in defense of abortion.”

Levin and Ponnuru and other reformers also oppose same-sex marriage, but again choose not to make an issue of it, recognizing that the battle is lost — or soon will be, as indeed the culture war in general has been. That, in addition to the bleak facts of the weak economic recovery and irrefutable demographic trends, explains the reformers' decision to channel their energies into economics and to become champions of middle-class America. This places them in a tradition that dates to the 1960s and '70s, when Moynihan broke with liberal orthodoxy by tying the country's social ills to the decline of the traditional family.

While the media's response to Eric Cantor's loss was to frame the party's dynamic as a Tea Party versus reformer death match, the reformers were more sanguine. “I think the Tea Party has been a very great good for the kind of change that needs to happen,” Levin said. “It's a source of great energy. It's a reaction to the right kinds of problems. It didn't arise with a policy mentality. A real grass-roots movement doesn't, generally.”

Levin and company, who do have the policy mentality, will happily fill in the blanks. In the wake of Cantor's defeat, April Ponnuru said she was still hearing from legislators interested in connecting with the ideas of the YG Network, and she had more events scheduled to spread the word. Rubio volunteered to speak at one such event in late June. He, too, shrugged off Cantor's defeat. “I don't think Eric Cantor lost because he gave a few speeches advocating reforms,” said Rubio, who seems to understand that being elected as an insurgent — riding the crest of a movement — doesn't mean he has to govern as one. American politics is the story, in large part, of outsiders who became skilled insiders, not by selling out but by growing into the demands of the office. It happened to Barry Goldwater and also to Reagan. It might happen again. When I spoke with him, Rubio also stood by his own antipoverty proposal, acknowledging it would not save any money but suggesting it might in the long run since it would lift many out of poverty. This is exactly the case Lyndon Johnson and Democrats made generations ago. “Our debt isn't driven by discretionary spending on poverty programs,” Rubio said. “We're not going to balance the budget by saving money on safety-net programs.”

It is hard to imagine the Republican candidate who will say this in a closely contested Red State primary in 2014 or during a presidential race in 2016. But some politicians say otherwise, including Levin's own favorite senator, Mike Lee, the Tea Party firebrand from Utah, who stood by Ted Cruz's side during the October shutdown but also has adopted the reformers' middle-class agenda as well as its idioms. Mere weeks before the shutdown, Lee drew favorable press for introducing a reform idea, the child tax credit, lifted straight from the pages of National Affairs. It was a big moment for Levin, “something we can really point to.” When I talked to Lee in June, he equated reform with conservatism and with the issues he expects his party to address in 2014 and in 2016. The current crisis, he said, “shows up in the form of immobility in the poor, insecurity in the middle class, with cronyist privilege at the top of the ladder.” Lee has spoken with Levin several times about these problems. “Without question, he's important and influential,” he said, adding that “government's job should be to facilitate the free market and civil society.” But is the reform agenda viable? “It's not just viable,” Lee replied. “I think it's the argument.”

The next presidential election may not seem a long way off. This was also the case when the last true policy revolution happened on the right. In 1979, members of the upstart Heritage Foundation, then only six years old, recruited some 250 scholars, Beltway policy-thinkers and Capitol Hill staff members to draw up a blueprint, department by department, for the next conservative president. They formed small teams and met in the evenings and on weekends. Experts in every facet of government operations, from the size of the Navy to the intricacies of the tax code, were assigned to propose laws and programs in accordance with conservative doctrine. “These were ideas that had been around since Barry Goldwater, and some even predated him, went back to the 1950s,” Lee Edwards, who participated in the project, told me recently.

In 1980, further inspired by Ronald Reagan's decision to seek the nomination, the teams started piecing together their proposals into a giant rethinking of government. “It took about 10 months to have it ready,” Edwards recalled. Completed just before Election Day, the 3,000-page manifesto was titled “Mandate for Leadership: Policy Management in a Conservative Administration.” Shortly after Reagan's landslide victory, Heritage officials carried copies of the mandate to the Hay-Adams Hotel, where they had arranged a secret meeting with Edwin Meese III, the head of Reagan's transition team. Soon after, the mandate was published as a book, with some 2,000 specific policy recommendations. It became a Beltway best seller as well as a scorecard for the Reagan years. “Later, we calculated something like two-thirds were adopted in whole or in part,” Edwards said. Some — like Reagan's 1981 tax cut and his decision to greatly enlarge the Navy fleet, as well as his decision to fire striking air traffic controllers — entered presidential annals.

“Conservatives acting like radicals” is how Edwards described the creators of the mandate. “We were going for basic changes.”

Many in Washington policy circles are familiar with the legend of the “Mandate for Leadership.” Yuval Levin, typically, has actually studied it. “It's very impressive,” he told me last month. “But at this point, I wouldn't say we've got a specific project of that scale in mind — maybe we'll just dump five years of National Affairs on the table.”

What's most impressive about the mandate is not the size of the report but the size of the army that produced it, the legion of policy intellectuals primed for such a mission. And that, in turn, implies a huge difference between that earlier era and this one. When Heritage was founded in 1973, 40 years had passed since the New Deal was introduced, and it was reasonable to say, as the movement conservatives of the '70s did, that those four decades had been a time in which liberalism reigned uninterrupted. Even the two Republican presidents of the period — Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon — accepted the reality of the welfare state and in some ways even extended it.

The situation in 2014 looks very different. It is hard to make the case that a new age of liberalism even exists to be rolled back. The shadow of Reagan still looms large. Bill Clinton, the Democrat who broke the Republicans' streak of victories in 1992, did so as a centrist New Democrat who repudiated the liberal doctrine of his day on issues like race and welfare and diligently courted the blue-collar, white ethnic vote. His famous “triangulation” consisted of compromises with Republicans, and he made so many that conservatives complained he was stealing their ideas.

Today many on the right, including the reformicons, insistently depict Obama as a radical, but they are well aware he kept all but the top sliver of George W. Bush's giant tax cut. And for all the efforts to discredit Obamacare, it was ratified by the most conservative Supreme Court in modern history. Every reformer I talked to acknowledged that the principle of universal coverage is here to stay, in whatever form, including the operations advanced by Republicans who want to “repeal and replace” Obama's plan, the basis of which was hatched from a conservative policy suggestion that originated in 1989 from the Heritage Foundation.

The condition that infects our politics today, volatile and unpredictable though it often seems, is a kind of equilibrium or ideological stasis. We have had a succession of three two-term presidents for the first time in nearly 200 years, each elected twice by small — in some cases tiny — margins. The one sweeping victory, Obama's in 2008, was not especially large; he received fewer electoral votes than Clinton got in 1992, when Clinton won with only 43 percent of the popular vote. And not one of the three has managed to hold on to a congressional majority and thereby maintain one-party rule. “It's the era of bad feelings,” Ramesh Ponnuru said.

That doesn't mean change won't come. No one was sure it would in 1979 either. “Reagan was able to do what he did because of the crisis that had been created by the Jimmy Carter presidency,” Lee Edwards observed. “If he had been elected in 1976, we would not have had the kinds of reforms. The goals could not be achieved.”

It is this possibility, not of crisis, but of a sudden drastic change in the political weather, that keeps Levin and his fellow wonks going, though in their case they are waging a battle within the conservative movement they want to speak for. “It's a lot of work, ” Levin said. “But that work has to be done.”

Original Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/magazine/can-the-gop-be-a-party-of-ideas.html

 

 
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