Conservatives: Always Overestimating the Leadership of GOP Politicians

While some right-wing pundits have a fine grip on Republican policy proposals, most remain willfully naive about how elected officials really act.

Mitt Romney in front of banner - AP Photo:Steve Pope - banner.jpg
Associated Press

During the Bush years, I started to see that movement conservatism so often fails to deliver for its rank and file partly because influential people within the movement aren't nearly tough enough on one another. Tribal solidarity is hardly unique to the Republican Party. But conservatives are particularly fond of loyalty and deference to authority. In hindsight, many wish they'd have spoken up sooner about everything from early floundering in Iraq to the K Street Project to excessive spending.

Every time I hear a conservative intellectual getting enthusiastic about politicians who don't desserve the benefit of any doubt, I start to get very nervous that the understandable desire for electoral victory is causing old pathologies to arise anew. Hence my criticism yesterday of Hugh Hewitt for a Washington Examiner column that proclaimed a renaissance in conservative thinking, and an accompanying blog post asserting that if Mitt Romney is elected, along with enough Republicans in the House and Senate, he'll quickly pass and implement innovative solutions to America's problems. That the column and blog post put forth this boosterism without even offering specific examples bothered me particularly, because implicit in that approach is the notion that readers should just take it on faith that conservative pundits are being sufficiently critical.

I've seen where that attitude leads.

So I stand by every criticism in yesterday's item. There is, however, something I ought to have added. While Hewitt's column and blog post consisted of sweeping assertions and almost no argument, the talk-radio host did dedicate two hours of his show on Friday to a lengthy interview with Yuval Levin, the brilliant editor of the conservative policy journal National Affairs, and particularly to a new book he has edited, A Time for Governing: Policy Solutions from the Pages of National Affairs. As a fan of that publication, its editor, and several writers it publishes, I ought to have given credit to Hewitt for highlighting them all in the talk-radio format, where policy detail is an awkward fit.

To honor the effort, I've plunked down $6.99 for a month of access to the premium site where every hour of Hewitt's radio program lives on archival pages. Having listened to the aforementioned two hours, I'm eager to acknowledge that Hewitt in fact has some smart policy specifics in mind that ought to have been in his columns. Running through some of them, I hope to persuade him that he's nevertheless gone overboard in his Romney boosterism, and is helping to recreate a dynamic whereby a Republican majority takes over, enjoys a long honeymoon despite having accomplished nothing, and is only disciplined by criticism when it's too late.

Let's begin by imagining that Mitt Romney has just been elected. Is he going to push forward an ambitious agenda to reform America's budget and entitlements? Here's what Hewitt and Levin say:

YUVAL LEVIN: They have no choice but to be ambitious. They have no choice due to the nature of the problem we have. And frankly they have no choice because the House Republicans the past two years have laid out an agenda that if we elect a Republican president he will more or less have to start working on. And I think they've done a huge service to the country by putting out a budget that really lays these things out in a way that a Republican president can't ignore.

HUGH HEWITT: I agree with that. Paul Ryan has been the most ambitious political figure of the last few years despite the fact that his budget has not been implemented.

Later they talk about Medicare:

HUGH HEWITT: When we come to Medicare the first question is a political question. Why bother? Can you beat the AARP?

YUVAL LEVIN: Yeah, you know, I think we can, because there's no alternative to fixing Medicare. The fact is that the fiscal problems of Medicare are absolutely at the essence of the country's larger fiscal problems. It is the most important economic or fiscal problem to solve. So there's no choice but to take on AARP.

These exchanges seem willfully naive. Is it ever true that circumstances compel a politician to embrace the very bold solution that wonks deem the optimal policy? I'd like just one past example.

Of course Mitt Romney will influence the budget that passes during his first year in office, as opposed to wholeheartedly embracing everything that Republicans passed last year. Perhaps some GOP legislators will even find it useful to water down some of the less popular parts of the Ryan budget themselves. There is no reason to conclude with anything like certainty that Romney and his allies will have "no choice" but to be ambitious. They could put their short-term political interests above the medium- and long-term interests of the country. It would hardly be unprecedented

As for Medicare, yes, it's core to the country's fiscal problems. As Hewitt and Levin know, even Paul Ryan's budget -- the best-case scenario for conservative ideologues -- doesn't touch Medicare spending for 10 years. Thereafter it controls costs by giving vouchers to seniors at a capped rate. While the prospect of future savings is welcome, the odds that the Ryan budget will be passed -- and that his Medicare cost savings will survive for a decade after its passage -- is ... uncertain! What's even more likely is that Romney decides he doesn't want to take on the AARP over Medicare at the beginning of his first term, and won't be persuaded by the empty assertion that he "has no choice." Kicking parts of entitlement reform down the road is always a choice, especially when your base cares a lot more about repealing Obamacare and passing tax cuts.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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