Conservatives: Always Overestimating the Leadership of GOP Politicians

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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
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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.

Why Romney might make less ambitious choices becomes more clear with context. It isn't just that the GOP ran in the 2010 midterms on preserving Medicare, though that matters. It's also that, for all Hewitt's talk about a renaissance of innovative new conservative ideas, the talking points are familiar:

YUVAL LEVIN: I'm talking about in the next decade, and less than that, we know that the Medicare program cannot be sustained the way it is now. Reform like the one that Avik Roy talks about, like what Paul Ryan talks about, is essential.

[snip]

HEWITT: So what is Roy's bottom line? We can't cover it. It's a very detailed, wonderful explanation. People will have to get A Time for Governing to get it, but condense it down.

LEVIN: Medicare today is a government-run, government-centered program where all decisions about pricing are made by bureaucrats. And Medicare ought to be a program where seniors get to choose from guaranteed options that are priced differently because they offer different benefits and seniors can make decisions for themselves about what's best. And that will give everyone in the system, doctors and providers and insurers, a reason to offer a cheaper product that is a higher quality project. That's how markets work. Markets create efficiency. They create better goods at lower prices. And that's exactly what we need in health care now.

I enjoy Avik Roy's work on health care. I agree with Levin that market forces are a surer way to bring down costs than bureaucratic decisionmaking. But this isn't a new, innovative way of talking about this issue (any more than the Social Security reform proposal discussed -- means testing -- is new). Broadly speaking, it's the agenda that the right has failed to pass because it isn't very popular among voters, there are powerful interests opposed to it, and other things are more important to the base.

None of that has changed.

Yet here's Hewitt's pitch to his listeners:

I think it is absolutely critical that Americans understand that things can be turned around. There are solutions. Smart people have got them. All we need is a political class willing to embrace them. That begins by electing Mitt Romney. It begins by electing a Republican Senate in large enough numbers to move bills that need to make hard choices. All of those people who can make that happen -- the key 10 Senate races, the key House races, Mitt Romney's race -- are listed over at HughHewitt.com. Find the Act Right button, get involved, give them some money.

It's so simple. All we need to do is elect Republicans. Give them some money. This time, it'll be different. 

I have no doubt that Levin and Hewitt earnestly believe Mitt Romney and a Republican controlled Congress would be good for America, just as they believed in the GOP's pitches in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2006. This time they may even be right. There were a few signs of realism in their conversation. Could foreign-policy concerns sidetrack Romney's domestic agenda, Hewitt asked. Sure, Levin replied, it could happen like it did when George W. Bush was in power.

Or take this final exchange:

HUGH HEWITT: Bill Clinton was the master of convening a policy forum and using it as a content provider. I think that's so crucial in this day and age of social media. Do you see Romney being willing to talk in public about big ideas between now and November in order to claim the mandate he's got to have?

YUVAL LEVIN: I'll tell you, I think he's been pretty reticent to get into details. And I do think that's a bit of a problem because he knows the details. When you talk to Governor Romney in private, he really knows policy well. He understands what it is that needs to be done, he knows what the problems are, he's a former governor. A lot of these things are issues that he's dealth with for a long time. And I guess I find myself wishing that he would get into that more in public, because it would help assure people that he knows what he's doing.

Even Levin worries that Romney isn't running in a way that Hewitt thinks is necessary for the sweeping mandate he's predicting.

What would help is if rather than asserting that Romney will pass bold, innovative solutions if given the chance, conservative media did more to press the Massachusetts governor on specifics. Rather than deifying Paul Ryan, they'd take the time to note -- as Bruce Bartlett does in this column -- that parts of his budget are so vague that they can only get less popular once fleshed out.

To quote Bartlett at length:

... Looking only at the tax side of Ryan's plan, he is anticipating enactment of an extraordinarily ambitious tax reform on top of the most ambitious budget cutting effort ever enacted. He would sharply cut outlays for every major program except Social Security and national defense. Every governmental function one can think of would be virtually abolished except for Medicare, Social Security and defense. A key reason for the severity of these cuts, of course, is that Ryan would cut taxes at the same time he is cutting spending. To achieve balance with lower than projected revenues requires even larger cuts in spending.

I do not believe any of this will ever happen or could ever happen. I think Ryan has an undeserved reputation for seriousness in budget matters. The word "fantasy" would better apply.

As I see it, the "flesh out your proposals, cut the unrealistic expectations, and prove to me you're not a manipulative charlatan" approach of Bartlett is a lot more likely to produce an accountable GOP majority with sound policy proposals than the trusting cheerleader mentality of Hewitt or Levin's mistaken notion that the severity of America's problems will force Republicans to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there's a tendency for critics like Bartlett to be ousted from movement conservatism's institutions, and for the rank-and-file to be seduced by undue optimism at two-year intervals. Hewitt has now endorsed a series of detailed policy essays by smart writers. I hope that every time he interviews Romney or a GOP legislator between now and the election he pressures them to commit to another of the planks he's so sure they'll adopt if given the chance.

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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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