GOP Contenders and Their Policy Wonks

Campaign managers get the big stories, but with polls showing the economy, unemployment, and health care remain voters' primary concerns, persuasive conservative policy proposals will also be central in to the contest for Republican primary votes in the upcoming race unseat President Obama.

To that end, two of the GOP's top presidential contenders -- Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney -- have already hired policy directors to help formulate formal platforms. But a look at the backgrounds of these directors shows that even as the candidates seek to woo the new tea party wing of the GOP, their policy men are more in the mold of Bush-era conservatives than tea party ones.

Former governor Pawlenty, the first GOP candidate to announce a presidential exploratory committee, was also the first to employ a policy director, hiring Brian Hook to that post at his Freedom First political action committee in January. Hook is a veteran of the Bush administration, having worked at both the State and Justice Departments over the course of the 43rd president's two terms. A graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law who has also worked in private practice, he joined the Justice Department's Office of Legal Policy in 2003 under Assistant Attorney Generals Jay Bybee (2001-2003) and then Jack Goldsmith (2003-2004), where he worked on judicial nominees and represented the Executive Branch before the 9/11 Commission. The following year he was appointed Special Assistant to the President for Policy in the Office of Chief of Staff Andrew Card, where he focused on homeland security, domestic policy and the environment. Prior credits include serving as senior advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and also as the ambassador's lead negotiator on Security Council resolutions imposing multilateral sanctions on Iran, Sudan, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Like his "Sam's Club" meets policy-wonk-boss, the Washington Post reported Hook is a good communicator, having been "praised inside the Bush White House for his ability to distill complex policy issues."

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Despite a nearly decade-long career in politics, Hook has garnered little attention for his own views, though he's voiced his opinion on various legal topics for The Federalist Society (see his appearance on the group's 2009 panel, "International Law: Agreements Between Sovereigns or World Government?") Hook's expertise also seems to lie in areas unrelated to Pawlenty's top priorities of controlling government spending and instituting market-driven health-care reform, so it will be interesting to see how he influences Pawlenty's campaign and the choice of policy expert(s) who Pawlenty's spokesman Alex Conant says the exploratory committee expects to hire. More importantly, perhaps, he also has ties to Iowa, having worked as Deputy Legislative Liaison for Gov. Terry E. Branstad there, and as a legislative aide to Rep. James A. Leach (R-Iowa).

The freshly declared Romney's new policy director, Lanhee Chen, is reprising his role with the former Massachusetts governor, having served as domestic policy director on Romney's 2008 campaign for the presidential nomination. He differs from Hook in many ways, though he too worked for President Bush, serving as his health policy advisor during the 2004 re-election campaign, when Bush proposed health-care tax credits for lower income families and market-based insurance enabling Americans to purchase private coverage. After that, he served in the Bush White House as a senior policy and political aide at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Harvard class of '99 graduate embraces academia, having earned multiple degrees -- including a J.D. and Ph.D. -- from the Ivy League school and worked at the Heritage Foundation. The now-defunct private Harvard alumni magazine 01238 pronounced Chen the Republican "policy doctor" in its "The Harvard 100" issue in 2006. On the political side, Chen worked as a lobbyist on K Street; in 2009 he was Steve Poizner's deputy campaign manager and policy director, when Poizner ran against Meg Whitman for California's GOP gubernatorial bid. Chen's various academic and political abilities combined with his health-policy expertise might prove to be valuable to Romney, given the fact that many conservatives consider his health-care accomplishments an unforgettable albatross.

During a 2007 health care forum among conservative policy insiders, Chen discussed both Romney's -- and perhaps his own views -- on health policy. He told attendees that Romney would like to cover every American during his presidency and emphasized Romney's track record, including "reforming insurance markets to expand access to care." Chen said: "I'm just glad to see on the Republican side that we're all embracing the notion of expanding access to health insurance." Despite such a centrist view, he didn't go so far as to embrace a federal government overhaul of health, saying many health-related issues should be left up to states.

As they seek to present themselves as a radical alternative to the Obama administration and win over primary voters, the GOP presidential candidates also will have to decide whether to seek at least some measure of support from the tea party movement. Pawlenty and Romney have done this to some extent, but while Hook and Chen appear to be talented, accomplished, policy insiders at the top of their game, neither of their backgrounds suggest they will be whipping up fresh, new ideas on policy matters of passionate interest to the tea partiers -- despite Pawlenty efforts in this regard, in particular. Rep. Paul Ryan, on the other hand, while he currently lacks presidential ambitions, looks like the only Republican aggressively driving the economic policy debate in an entirely new direction.

With the other GOP Presidential contenders still to announce fully-staffed campaigns (or exploratory committees), it's still unclear if they too will employ the same 'ole GOP policy wonks, or if they embrace a new team and the more radical and innovative ideas of the only Republican leading the way to real conservative policy reform.