Sketch June 2013

Josh Barro, the Loneliest Republican

What to make of the 28-year-old columnist's contempt for the GOP—and its would-be reformers
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John Cuneo

A week had passed since the 2012 election when Josh Barro finally said the unsayable. The 28-year-old Bloomberg View columnist is—or, arguably, was—the most precocious of a coterie of conservative reformists whose numbers have steadily swollen, those arguing that the GOP’s product itself, not merely its marketing slogans, needs to change.

Writers like David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and Ramesh Ponnuru have made versions of this case for several years. In recent months, owing to the shock of Mitt Romney’s defeat, more-orthodox figures like James Pethokoukis and Michael Gerson have joined them. But all have delivered their critiques with a velvet touch that underplays the scale of the change they advocate. Of course Reagan’s canon—taxes bad, spending bad, markets good—addressed the problems of 1980, they gently submit. But new problems have replaced them, like too-big-to-fail banks and middle-class wage stagnation, thus demanding new, middle-class-friendly solutions. The reformers offer positive alternatives and cheerfully tout any signs, however faint, of their imminent adoption. What they do not do is face up to the stark contrast between their imagined Republican Party and the real thing.

This is the threshold Barro crossed. The trouble, he wrote on November 14, “is not simply that Republicans lack the imagination to come up with ideas to get higher wages, more jobs and affordable health care to the middle class. It is that there is no set of policies that is both acceptable to conservatives and likely to achieve these goals.” The GOP’s choice to advocate low taxes for the rich rather than fund any kind of scheme to provide health care for the uninsured was no mere oversight, but a conscious decision, he later wrote—one that inevitably followed from the party’s dogmatic attachment to market outcomes and the dictates of its donor base. “The pro–middle class conservative project,” he pronounced, “is doomed.”

The conservative reaction to Barro’s darts has been, in many ways, unsurprising: after Barro bluntly lacerated Republicans for lacking any plan to cover the uninsured, for instance, the conservative blogger Ben Domenech snarked, “Now I understand why Josh Barro couldn’t keep a job in even a moderately conservative outfit,” referring to Barro’s 2012 departure (voluntary, Barro says) from the Manhattan Institute. And yet, Barro has pried open a fissure within the conservative reform movement, not unlike the old rift between the Western Marxists who acknowledged the actual reality of the Soviet Union and those who preferred to imagine the one that existed in their beautiful theories.

The surprising thing is that Barro, the son of the prominent orthodox-conservative economist Robert Barro, is the one who has done it. The elder Barro has called the stimulus “the worst bill that has been put forward since the 1930s,” or simply “garbage,” and he has appeared regularly on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where he has denounced “the Obama Road to Serfdom.” Until very recently, nothing about his son’s career had suggested that the apple would fall far from the tree. Josh Barro volunteered for Romney during his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, interned for Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, landed a job as a Koch Associate at the Tax Foundation, and eventually migrated to the Manhattan Institute and started writing for Salam’s blog at National Review. In early 2010, after Paul Ryan unveiled his sweeping budget overhaul, Barro and Salam wrote a 3,000-word article for National Review laying out the standard conservative-reformist assessment. Ryan’s plan, in their telling, was bold and praiseworthy, and its flaws merely opportunities for future refinement and improvement. “Far from a reckless plot to ravage the welfare state,” they wrote, “Ryan’s roadmap is a sober, responsible preview of the hard choices we’ll have to make.”

It is difficult to identify just what shook Barro loose from his ideological moorings. In person he comes across just as he does in prose—spare, direct, razor-sharp, and unremittingly rational. Barro, who has a buzz cut and a closely cropped beard, speaks quietly. As you might expect of someone weaned on economics, he finds subjects like public-employee pensions fascinating. As you might not expect of a Harvard alum rocketing upward in his chosen profession, he finds the subject of himself tedious, and tends to turn any personal question into a policy question. He answers most questions the same way you would explain why you believe four plus four equals eight; when I asked whether his relationship with his father had changed as a result of his recent writings, he replied, “I think he cares more that my work isn’t stupid than that I disagree with him on a lot of things.” He appears devoid of introspection, or any detectable emotions at all, save irascibility.

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