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Establishments and Our Money: A Response To Avik Roy

We Will Not Get It Back Without A Fight

Following my essay on the nature of the Establishment vs Tea Party or Outsider divide on the Right as driven primarily by a divide over whether and how we can roll back the seemingly endless growth of spending and the size of government, a number of people offered criticisms. Some noted that there are longstanding divides between the DC-based professional class (officeholders, staffers, pundits and journalists who have a direct stake in particular people having political power) and those outside. Which is true and a contributing factor (as any student of public choice theory could tell you), but not new, and in any event self-defeating definition: if the people in power are definitionally opposed to those without, then new elections are purposeless exercises. History tells us otherwise: the professional class may restrain and co-opt, but there are always those officeholders (new and experienced) who are willing to stick their necks out for genuine changes in the long-term trajectory of public policy. Others pointed to the cultural divide such as the one that Angelo Codevilla identified in his 2010 essay distinguishing between a Ruling Class and a Country Party. Codevilla’s analysis is certainly a useful part of the debate, and is another longstanding fault line that laid the groundwork for the current schism. But it doesn’t really reflect why now, at this time, conservatives are willing to lock horns with the organs of Republican and conservative leadership that, in the Bush years, commanded a good deal of loyalty from the rank and file – willing enough to line up cheering throngs of responsible citizens behind the most unlikely of 21st century populist champions, Newt Gingrich.

The most sustained critique comes from sometime National Review contributor Avik Roy, writing in Forbes. Roy calls Redstate a “bastion of populist conservatism,” which is true even if I’m not exactly anybody’s idea of a populist. He says that Ben Domenech is “one of the best conservative writers on health care issues,” which is certainly true, and faults the rest of us at RedState for not developing “serious proposals for entitlement reform,” in contrast to NR’s columnists – which should be unsurprising to Roy if he thinks about the fact that most of us have day jobs, to say nothing of the fact that RedState’s principal role is activism rather than think-tankery.

Roy seems most upset at my references to National Review, which is a shame, because as I said I have nothing against NR, and I agree with Roy that NR as a whole still provides an awful lot of good punditry, analysis and advocacy (and I remain a big fan of many of its long-time writers); I was just trying to explain precisely why so many people on the Right were agitated at it. In any event, Roy misses some crucially important points that undermine his entire argument.

To begin with, Roy completely ignores everything that has happened on Capitol Hill since, well, ever. There’s a reason I started by citing the Boehner-McConnell divide as the front lines of the current schism, yet Roy doesn’t even bother to discuss the current dynamics in Congress, let alone the long and dolorous history of efforts to get Congress to restrain the growth of spending, entitlements and the size of government.

This is related to the larger failing in Roy’s analysis, which is to equate having position papers with being serious about reform:

National Review has been the leading source of detailed conservative proposals and thoughtful conservative opinion on entitlement reform. People like Yuval Levin and Jim Capretta, who write regularly for NR, have effectively dedicated their careers to the cause of entitlement reform.

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The rhetoric of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum may be less inflammatory, but it is backed up with real proposals that stand a chance of getting passed by an actual Congress.

As anyone with a passing familiarity with Republican politics over the past four or five decades knows, conservative magazines and think tanks have been making detailed entitlement reform proposals for most of those years, and Republicans running for offices high and low have been running on platforms of reducing the size and cost of government for just as long. And then nothing happens.

That’s why Congress’ battles over the debt ceiling and related issues provide such a potent example. Basically all Republican Senators profess to be in favor of smaller government, and yet so few are willing to go to the barricades to make it a reality. Now, I’m a realist – there are limits to how much we could expect even a completely united GOP to bring home as long as Obama is the President and Harry Reid the Senate Majority Leader. But the repeated spectacle of leading pundits and Beltway Republicans tut-tutting Boehner and company for even trying to use their leverage to exact real concessions is a sign that the message Republican voters have been sending is not getting through to everyone.

(I will leave aside for the moment the detailed arguments over policy alternatives, except to make the obvious point that, to the extent Roy is framing of the debate as one about deficits and how to “fix Medicare” and “compromise with the dastardly forces of statism” with plans like Ryan-Wyden rather than how to reduce the overall footprint of public spending in relation to the private sector economy, he is illustrating rather than responding to my argument.)

The related point here – and one that says much about why RedState has put so much energy into intra-party primary battles rather than the production of white papers – is that personnel is policy. The ideas are already there; what is lacking is the necessary corps of people with the will to fight for them. As the other presidential contenders have faded by now, in the case of the presidential race I’ll focus at this point on Romney (the candidate who unquestionably has drawn the most loyal support from elected officials, NR editorials and other spots on the commanding heights of Republican politics) and Gingrich, who I previously identified as a sort-of-Outsider (albeit not as fundamentally as Rick Perry) and who has (like Perry) drawn a disproportionate amount of scorn from people who you might think of as allies to his cause.

It’s true that if you plow through Romney’s gazillion-point plans you will find things worth fighting for. The problem is convincing anybody that Mitt Romney, of all people, would actually go to the mattresses to get them done. Besides noting that “Romney is saddled, as we know, with Romneycare,” Roy gives the element of leadership short shrift, yet it is at the center of the disquiet with Romney and his actual record in office. It’s why it is troubling to see talk from Romney backers about replacing rather than repealing Obamacare, and positively alarming to see senior Romney advisor Norm Coleman say

“We’re not going to do repeal. You’re not going to repeal Obamacare… It’s not a total repeal… You will not repeal the act in its entirety, but you will see major changes, particularly if there is a Republican president… You can’t whole-cloth throw it out. But you can substantially change what’s been done.”

Gingrich, as I have noted before, is an odd fit with the anti-Establishment movement he now finds himself leading, not only because he is so long inside the Beltway and so steeped in its ways (albeit with a nearly endless list of enemies there) but because he’s not fundamentally a small-government guy. But the anti-Establishment, Outsider, Tea Party movement appears to be rapidly consolidating behind him as a vessel to stop Romney for reasons that are hardly irrational: Newt is a fighter and an iconoclast by temperament and a powerful spokesman for conservative ideas, but he’s also a guy with an actual record. As Newt loves to note, the 1996 welfare reform is the closest we’ve come to actual government-shrinking entitlement reform in living memory. Newt spearheaded a national reform that took millions of Americans off the welfare rolls, cutting caseloads in half by 2000; Romney created an entitlement to add about 400,000 people to the taxpayer-subsidized pool in Massachusetts alone. And, as Josh Kraushaar notes, Newt on the stump is a good deal more substantive in his presentation than Romney. (This is one reason why Newt won out over Rick Perry, an experienced and knowledgeable governor who was never able to communicate his accomplishments and understanding of public policy to voters). Voters may be looking skeptically at campaign promises as opposed to records in office, but they very rationally view a candidate’s willingness to verbalize strong positions as a necessary predicate to carrying them out.

Roy goes on to say:

Conservatives have a well-earned suspicion of anything that comes out of the Northeast, and of Ivy League-educated coastal elites in general. The thinking goes that, since most Northeasterners and Ivy Leaguers are liberals, the so-called conservatives who come out of these places must be liberals also. Conversely, conservatives who come out of red states must be true conservatives.

As a lifelong New Yorker and Wall Street lawyer with an Ivy League law degree, I may not be the best target for Roy’s caricature, but even aside from that, it’s pretty clear that most Tea Partiers understand perfectly that the ability to fight for real change is not about what state you come from but what you do to move the needle in the place you serve. Chris Christie, though basically a moderate Republican, has become a cult hero for his willingness to play hardball with public employee unions; ditto Scott Walker in the Land of LaFollette. I’m hardly alone among current Newt supporters in having once backed Rudy Giuliani for President, because Rudy made major, lasting changes in New York City’s liberal governance that made the city a better place to live – Rudy may have unraveled as the 2008 campaign wore on, but his status for much of 2007 as the national polling frontrunner based on his actual accomplishments in office implies a more nuanced view of the movement that has now swung, at least for the moment, behind a Ph.D. historian.

The point of my essay was not to denounce anyone, but to explain the history and depth of the current popular distrust on the Right of leaders who seem unwilling to lead. The battle to restrain runaway government spending is so much smoke and mirrors unless the people who profess to support it in word are dedicated to it in deed. No wealth of position papers, endorsements and Power Point presentations can demonstrate that. Voters and activists who have figured this out are rightly skeptical of those who don’t seem to “get it”. And they are more than willing to embrace flawed champions – even such a creature of the Beltway as Newt Gingrich – if they demonstrate the willingness to actually do something to stop the runaway train of federal spending. Every time some Beltway figure calls Newt or some Tea Party candidate crazy, voters think again, “he might actually be crazy enough to upset some applecarts to get things done.”

The world of the Right is not divided into pure heroes and villains on this issue, and more than a few people and institutions with as many or more accomplishments in the movement as Newt Gingrich have fallen out of favor (as Newt himself did more than a decade ago), for growing too comfortable with an overgrown Washington – they’ve lived long enough to see themselves become the villain, and the voters have moved on.

Because it’s not about heroes and villains. This is democratic self-government, not theater. It’s about results.

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