Michael Grebe just quit his job as the head of a $840 million venture-capital firm. That’s one way of looking at his retirement this summer as president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the country’s largest and possibly most influential conservative philanthropic foundation, where he has spent the last 14 years leading an investment strategy whose goal is to promote limited government and free enterprise.
“I’m worried that we’re losing the war of ideas,” says Grebe. “A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined saying that right now.” He’s not just talking about the rise of Donald Trump in the GOP. “Trump is not the cause of our problems,” says Grebe. “He’s a symptom.”
For years, conservatives have prided themselves on the high quality of their ideas. Even when they’ve lost elections, they’ve continued to take the long view, believing that in time their better ideas will prevail. Whatever faith Grebe once put into this notion has vanished. “Look at young people,” he says. “They’re a big part of the population and many of them don’t believe in capitalism.” He could cite a Gallup poll from earlier this year: Fifty-five percent of adults under the age of 30 admitted to a positive view of socialism. “It’s alarming,” he says. “People talk about the Republican party needing to do some soul searching. I think the conservative movement needs more introspection. We’ve got to do better.”
The 75-year-old Grebe (rhymes with “freebie”) was born near Peoria, Ill., attended West Point, and received a pair of Bronze Stars for his service in Vietnam. After law school at the University of Michigan, he settled in Milwaukee, making his career at Foley & Lardner, one of the nation’s biggest law firms. Along the way, he became involved in GOP politics. “I was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan,” he says. Grebe never has sought public office, but he has considered it several times — and he came close to running for governor of Wisconsin in 1986. “The timing wasn’t right for my family,” he says.
That was the year Tommy Thompson, a Republican, won election as the state’s governor. He went on to serve four terms, turning Wisconsin into one of federalism’s fabled laboratories of democracy, receiving critical assistance from the Bradley Foundation. As a private foundation, Bradley is prohibited from engaging in politics or electioneering — but it may support the work of scholars, think tanks, and policy groups, and that’s what it did under the leadership of Michael Joyce in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Thompson and his allies introduced path-breaking welfare-reform and school-choice programs. Without those reforms, President Bill Clinton might not have signed a law demanding that welfare recipients meet work requirements, and school vouchers and education savings accounts might still be a dream of free-market fantasists rather than a slowly growing reality.
Grebe joined Bradley’s board in 1996. Six years later, the foundation needed a successor to Joyce, and Grebe joined the search committee. At one point, he missed a meeting. At the next gathering, members of the committee told him he should take the job. Ever since, he’s put up with jokes about acting like Dick Cheney, who famously headed George W. Bush’s vice-presidential selection process.
Although Grebe had high hopes for what the foundation could achieve, his fundamental goal was modest. “I always tried to approach the job as a steward, trying to honor the legacy of the Bradley brothers,” he says, referring to the foundation’s namesakes: the two men who built the Allen-Bradley Company, a maker of automotive and electrical components. “Whatever accomplishments we’ve had at the Bradley Foundation are not personal accomplishments,” he insists.
Early on, Grebe inaugurated a project that today may be the foundation’s most visible activity: the Bradley prizes, which function as a kind of Nobel Prize for conservatives, with four recipients each year. “We wanted to recognize the accomplishments of outstanding conservatives — to create a celebration for the home team — and also to publicize their achievements so they’re better understood in popular culture,” he says. Since 2003, they’ve gone to the likes of legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, actor Gary Sinise, and economist Thomas Sowell. The awards were not Grebe’s idea — “They came out of a strategic-planning session early in my tenure,” he points out — but they became a distinguishing feature on his watch, culminating each June with an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Last year, the foundation gave away more than $41 million. About one-third of the grants stay in Milwaukee, supporting libraries, museums, orchestras, and other cultural organizations. But a large portion of these contributions is “more Tocquevillian in scope,” says Grebe, backing “small local institutions doing good things for people in neighborhoods.” These include schools, ministries, and youth centers.
The bulk of the foundation’s giving, however, has a national reach. Grebe ticks off the priorities as if he were reading from a mission statement: “democratic capitalism, competent and limited government, and a rigorous defense of American interests at home and abroad.” These goals haven’t changed since they were adopted in the 1980s, when the foundation took on its modern shape, though their particular application continues to evolve. Today, cybersecurity is a major concern, even though the foundation didn’t have its own website when Grebe joined the board. “We’re also more involved in higher education,” Grebe notes. Even though the Left dominates colleges and universities, Grebe refuses to label higher education a lost cause. “We don’t want to give up,” he says. He mentions the importance of supporting scholars who work with graduate students: As always, Bradley is thinking about the next generation.
Two years ago, the foundation received an infusion of $200 million, a final bequest from members of the extended Bradley family, increasing the endowment by more than a quarter. “The board decided to use these new funds for large grants in areas of critical importance,” he says. One of them is marriage and family. “So many things have flowed from their decline. The data show that people in stable marriages do better financially, children do better academically, and so on. This is one of the most pressing issues of our time,” Grebe explains.
Another priority is to create a thriving conservative infrastructure in the states. “We need to build networks of think tanks, public-interest law firms, and media outlets that collaborate to advance the cause,” says Grebe. “We’ve seen the Left establish its own networks in Colorado and elsewhere. We’ve been getting outspent and need to respond.”
The Bradley Foundation never has approached problems like a command-and-control center. “We don’t come up with ideas,” Grebe says. “We identify areas of concern and invite people to propose solutions.” Then the foundation issues grants, much like an investment company that wants to provide seed money for the next big thing. Does Grebe have a favorite grant from his two decades in Big Philanthropy? He demurs: “That’s like asking which child I like best.” One important difference, though, is that while he wants his kids to succeed, he expects a few of his grants to flop: “If some don’t fail, it means we aren’t taking enough chances.”
When Grebe joined the foundation, he remained active in politics, even as he kept this work strictly separate from philanthropy. He has served as campaign chairman for Scott Walker, the current governor of Wisconsin, who came to national attention five years ago for his efforts to rein in public pensions and limit the power of labor unions. “When I needed to make political calls, I would leave the foundation office,” Grebe says. At one point, he had hoped that conservative politics would keep him occupied through 2016: He chaired Walker’s presidential campaign.
When Walker dropped out of the race, Grebe switched his support to Marco Rubio. When Rubio stumbled, Grebe jumped to Ted Cruz, voting for him in Wisconsin’s GOP primary in March, a contest Cruz won. Cruz finally fell in May, but Grebe refused to align himself with Donald Trump. He even resigned as a delegate and skipped the Republican convention in July.
“I did not want to be part of a process that nominates Trump,” he says. “He’s not appealing to people based on the conservative ideas and policies that we’ve held dear. He has a populist instinct that’s not conservative. Parts of the case for him I can understand, such as the importance of the Supreme Court and the unacceptability of Hillary Clinton,” Grebe acknowledges. “I don’t accept the claim that he’s going to ‘shake things up.’ We don’t know what he’s going to do. He lacks policy positions, as well as the temperament and judgment.”
Grebe isn’t sure how he’ll vote in November. “I might vote for Trump, and I definitely won’t vote for Clinton,” he says. He’s even taking a look at Gary Johnson, the onetime GOP governor of New Mexico who is running for president as a Libertarian: “I haven’t ruled him out. I need to learn more about him.” He says he might leave the top of his ballot blank, but he’ll certainly vote: “We can’t forget about all of the other important races.” He mentions Ron Johnson, the Republican senator running for reelection in Wisconsin.
Grebe worries that, whatever happens in November, the conservative movement is in big trouble. “Whether Trump wins or loses, he represents a serious setback,” he says. “The failure of conservative candidates to get traction says we’re losing the war of ideas. A large percentage of people don’t share our beliefs. We’ve got to do a better job of talking to them. We need to keep investing in ideas — and also in ways to communicate our ideas to the public.”
Grebe worries that the conservative movement has become a victim of its own success. “We’ve professionalized, which in many ways is a good thing,” he says. “But we have to remember that fresh perspectives come from the states and from volunteers. Not all good ideas are hatched in Washington, D.C. We need more people from flyover country — people like Phyllis Schlafly.” That’s a reference to the grassroots activist who died on September 5 and whose legacy is to have almost single-handedly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment, an appealingly named left-wing crusade of the 1970s.
Today, Grebe has time on his hands: Not only did Richard Graber succeed him as president of the foundation in July, but he’s off the board as well. “I’m going to do nothing for a couple of months,” he says. “Then I’ll figure out what I want to do.” He mentions hands-on volunteer work: “I may help out at the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.” That’s a Christian homeless shelter. “I don’t mean that I’ll serve on its board, I mean that I might go in and serve food or provide counseling.”
The Bradley Foundation faces a similar challenge. Perhaps it should put out a new request for proposals: What now?