The old Washington adage that personnel is policy may be especially important in a time like ours when all other modes of advancing policy seem paralyzed by incoherence and dysfunction. That’s true in the executive branch and it’s true in Congress too. So a personnel announcement like the one from Florida senator Marco Rubio today is worth noticing.
Rubio has hired Mike Needham, co-founder and president of Heritage Action, to be his new chief of staff. Needham is a friend, so you can treat my sense of this with a helping of salt if you like, but I think it’s a smart move and a good sign.
Rubio has been signaling for some time that he’s looking for ways to take up the concerns of working-class families in the Senate. This has been his response to the election, though it was plainly a priority for him before too. And like a number of other younger Republicans in the Senate, he’s looking for ways to apply enduring principles to some new problems — ways, that is, to be a conservative in a new political environment and to help the GOP and the country see what conservatives might have to offer in the coming years.
It’s not too surprising that he sees Needham as a kindred spirit in that effort. Heritage Action, for all the grief it received for its part in the 2013 government shutdown, has been looking for ways to make sense of the interplay of populism and conservatism since before most people on the right noticed anything was changing. And Needham in particular has been exceptionally creative and open-minded about learning lessons on the fly from the intense developments of the past decade on that front.
You can find him, for instance, thinking out loud about some of those questions in this 2015 essay in National Affairs — part of an exchange of arguments and ideas we hosted in our pages on the question of populism and conservatism over the past five years (Needham’s essay refers and links to several of those that preceded it, and more have followed since).
He doesn’t see Trump coming in that piece of course; no one did. And I bet he’d write a little differently today about the balance of priorities that defined the Tea Party. But he saw more clearly than many others the set of questions that would end up shaping the few years that followed, and that will shape the coming years as well — since the concerns that drove key elements of the Republican electorate in 2016 are obviously not being addressed by the person they ended up choosing to represent them.
The question of populism and conservatism remains an open one, and isn’t going anywhere. But it’s good to see people who are thoughtful about it, and willing to learn lessons and try out some potential ways forward, coming together in some key spots in our constitutional system.