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.

The latter quality he has in ample supply. After I interviewed him, but well before this piece was to be published, Barro wrote a blog post assailing a column I had written for New York magazine, about Republican Senator Rob Portman, as “hugely and unnecessarily uncharitable.” Why would he do this? Possibly, he figured there was no logical reason his disagreement with me on Portman ought to affect my appraisal of him, so he needn’t worry about offending me. Also possibly, he figured it might, but didn’t let that stop him. Suffice it to say, few profile subjects would go out of their way to publicly denounce the writer who was about to assess them in a national publication.

Over the first of two young-man lunches of red meat and fries, Barro told me that his own principles had changed little, but that external circumstances—primarily the economic crisis, and the urgent need for stimulus—had changed around him. (Many ideological apostates believe this about themselves.) In his mind, everything he had done simply followed from the available facts, the way the result of a calculation would change if you fed in different inputs.

But even the brief arc of Barro’s young career—at National Review, then Forbes, and now Bloomberg View—displays a man losing all patience with the Republican Party. Over time, Barro’s writing has fitfully evolved from muted, oblique criticism to polite, persistent criticism to, finally, firm opposition. His alienation crystallized in a widely read post declaring Romney’s infamous “47 percent” video as fatally defining the Republican candidate. Now Barro writes things like “The party’s economic agenda, as embodied in the latest Ryan budget, is simply terrible for the vast majority of Americans.”

I recently sent Barro his 2010 article praising Ryan’s plan. After rereading it, he ticked off its flaws: He had filled in every ambiguity by assuming the best faith on Ryan’s part, while ignoring Ryan’s punishing cuts to Medicaid. The budgetary weaknesses he had identified, he had framed as problems that “need to be fixed,” whereas he now recognizes that Ryan is unwilling to do what’s needed to fix them (primarily, raise taxes).

Once an oblique critic, Barro now says that the GOP’s economic agenda “is simply terrible for the vast majority of Americans.”

Barro’s willingness to not only speak out plainly, but also speak out against those who won’t join him in doing so, is what has lent his apostasy such force. I met with Salam the morning after Barro and his erstwhile allies had had a particularly pointed exchange. “If conservative health wonks really cared about health reform, wouldn’t they be exasperated” with Republican elected officials “for never following through?,” Barro jeered on Twitter. “Yet they seem oddly content within the GOP coalition. It’s as if they don’t really care all that much” about actual reform. The debate had cut to the heart of what separates Barro from most of the other conservative reformers: Barro increasingly sees their refusal to confront the reality of the Republican stance as a kind of intellectual dishonesty.

The reformers take deep umbrage at the accusation. Salam explained that he considers himself basically in agreement with Barro on ends, but completely in disagreement on means. What Barro calls dishonesty, Salam sees, not unreasonably, as the compromises necessary to give the reform movement a hearing within the GOP and, over time, to nudge the party in a different direction. “The truly public-spirited person,” Salam told me, “is part of a team, and makes their team smarter and better to the extent they can.” Douthat likewise retorted on Twitter, “It’s also hard to change a political coalition if you make it clear that you basically despise its members.”

Barro, for his part, is perfectly aware of the political dynamic. “I don’t expect them to be more responsive to my sticks than to Reihan’s carrots,” he told me.

Rather, Barro seems to regard the role of the intellectual as that of truth-teller rather than operator. The distance between him and the reformers he is leaving behind remains, on questions of substance, small. Like them, he believes American politics needs a party that can advocate compassionate, market-oriented alternatives to Democratic policies. But he won’t pretend that party is even a rough approximation of the current GOP, and he has little regard for those who would blur the distinction between the two. “You can play a long game,” he told me. “But how long is the long game?”

Jonathan Chait is a writer for New York magazine.
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