The Agenda

The Return of Irving Kristol, Plus: Where are the GOP Policy Entrepreneurs?

Matthew Continetti invokes Irving Kristol, my favorite modern conservative thinker, in an excellent essay on the “double bind” facing Republicans. The following excerpt will give you the gist:

Voters want to know, what have you done for us lately? They want tangible benefits. Now.

Man’s “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” really does lead him to better his condition. But the mechanism by which the free market enriches the least among us is invisible and gradual. It’s so gradual, in fact, that it may have stopped. The stock market and corporate earnings may be soaring, but wages as a share of the economy have fallen to a record low. Unemployment remains stuck around 8 percent. Growth is negligible.

When the rhetorical varnish has worn off, voters will look at the substance of GOP proposals. And voters not already part of the Republican coalition will find in those proposals the same things they disliked when Mitt Romney proposed them last year. They do not take from the rich and give to the poor. They deliver intangible benefits. They can be portrayed easily as serving the interests of the rich and powerful.

Thus the Republican quandary: Crack down on Wall Street and watch the party’s financial resources dry up. Increase the power of the Education Department and watch the conservative coalition divide. Amnesty 12 million illegal immigrants and gain 12 million new Democrats while incentivizing additional illegal border crossings and watching parts of the GOP coalition self-immolate. Or play the compassion card for a couple of hands​—​until the media call you hypocrites and the targets of outreach turn against you.

Matt goes on to offer tentative thoughts on how Republicans might escape this “double bind,” and they are well worth reading. They fit neatly into the “reform conservative” framework, but with a populist edge, particularly on trade. And interestingly, he concludes on the same note Ross Douthat hits in his latest column. First, Matt:

Ronald Reagan ended up breaking the double bind of the 1970s by ditching the accountant’s mentality and adopting a supply-side economics program that put economic growth and military superiority above deficit concerns. Reagan did not touch Social Security​—​he actually strengthened it with tax increases​—​and ignored Medicare. His presidency was such a success that President Obama now seeks to emulate it.

Reagan’s solutions are no longer applicable in the post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-financial-crisis world. But his experience in the late 1970s shows that an entrepreneurial politician can escape a stagnant GOP by questioning the assumptions of the Republican party and challenging the priorities of its strongest constituencies.

Who in the GOP is ready to make a similar challenge today? Beats me. But I do know this: Whoever she is, she will know all about the double bind. [Emphasis added]

And then Ross, after reflecting on why Sen. Rand Paul’s recent filibuster proved so strangely invigorating to conservatives, including those who don’t agree with Paul’s critique in every respect:

Rather, the lesson of Paul’s ascent is that being a policy entrepreneur carries rewards as well as risks — and that if you know how to speak the language of the party’s base, it’s possible to be a different kind of Republican without forfeiting your conservative bona fides.

This is something that the party’s other ambitious officeholders have been slow to recognize. Since the 2012 election, a number of prominent Republicans — Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, and so on — have given speeches that tiptoe toward new ideas, new policies, new visions of what their party might stand for and support. But ultimately they’ve all stopped short of actually breaking with the policy consensus that sent Romney down to defeat.

Paul, by contrast, has actually challenged that consensus in a substantive and constructive way. And far from being excommunicated for it, he’s been rewarded with greater prominence and increased conservative support.

For those with ears, let them hear. [Emphasis added]

To make Ross’s point more crudely and explicitly: where is the Republican lawmaker who will do for expanding the child tax credit what Rand Paul has done for articulating inchoate civil liberties concerns about drone warfare? Just as Paul’s move helped revitalize and grow conservative interest in civil liberties issues, the first prominent Republican to counter President Obama’s calls for applying revenue from the elimination of deductions and credits for high earners to deficit reduction with a call for applying this revenue to an expanded child tax credit could, under the right circumstances, galvanize the right and a good number of middle-income independents. But so far, no one has been willing to make the case.  

This has been an enduring obsession of many “reform conservatives” — or what Josh Barro has referred to as the “good cop” camp of those trying to fix the right — why are Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates so risk-averse? GOP governors tend to be less so, in part because they face hard budget constraints and statewide electorates. Yet when we consider the House Republicans, the actual work of devising innovative policy is done by a small handful of members. The vast majority of backbenchers fail to build real policy portfolios and areas of specialization, and so they fail to enrich the party as a whole. Committee assignments ought to help, but they don’t seem to have encouraged robust policy development work. In an ideal world, the leadership would assign members, or at the very least members in the safest seats, the task of burrowing into domains likely to be of growing importance, e.g.: long-term care insurance, prisoner re-entry, chronic illnesses, energy development on federal lands, the federal government’s relations with American Indian nations, aviation policy, federally funded research and development centers, etc. There are some notable exceptions — Sen. Tom Coburn regularly goes above and beyond the call of duty, as do Reps. Devin Nunes and Dave Camp and Paul Ryan. But they are the exception and they don’t do as much as they might. Championing policy innovation could be a job for backbenchers.

To make this work, congressional Republicans need stronger third-party analytical resources. The CBO won’t generally score proposals that don’t already have co-sponsors, and so policy entrepreneurs often find it difficult to craft substantive legislative proposals. Center-left policymakers can rely on friendly third-party think tanks, but conservatives don’t have an institution with the heft of, for example, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. 


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