The conservative establishment in Washington caught the same fever that then raged among conservatives across the country. At that time, I worked at the American Enterprise Institute, the most high-toned of Washington’s conservative think tanks. In later years, AEI would provide a home for the emerging “reform conservative” tendency. Its president, Arthur Brooks, would speak eloquently of the need for conservatives to show concern for the poor and the hard-pressed working class. But all that lay ahead in 2010. The mood then was that supporters and opponents of the Obama administration were engaged in a furious battle over whether the United States would remain a capitalist economy at all.
“We must choose,” Brooks wrote in his highly influential book titled, precisely, The Battle, whether “America will continue to be a unique and exceptional nation organized around the principle of free enterprise” or whether “America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, increasing income redistribution, and government-controlled corporations. These competing visions are not reconcilable.”
It was no moment for advocates of compromise—indeed, it was precisely because I appreciated its unwelcomeness where I worked that I had launched an independent blog in the first place. There, to the increasing irritation of my colleagues and employers, I fruitlessly argued through 2009 and 2010 that Republicans should do business with President Obama on health-care reform.
It seemed to me that Obama’s adoption of ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s—and then enacted into state law in Massachusetts by Governor Mitt Romney—offered the best near-term hope to control the federal health-care spending that would otherwise devour the defense budget and force taxes upward. I suggested that universal coverage was a worthy goal, and one that would hugely relieve the anxieties of working-class and middle-class Americans who had suffered so much in the Great Recession. And I predicted that the Democrats remembered the catastrophe that befell them in 1994 when they promised health-care reform and failed to deliver. They had the votes this time to pass something. They surely would do so—and so the practical question facing Republicans was whether it would not be better to negotiate to shape that “something” in ways that would be less expensive, less regulatory, and less redistributive.
As I said: fruitless.
From a personal point of view, in fact, my efforts were worse than fruitless. Old friends grew suspicious and drifted away. At second and third hand, I heard echoes of unpleasant explanations for my deviation from the ever-radicalizing main line of Washington conservatism. Increasingly isolated and frustrated, I watched with dismay as people I’d known for years and decades incited each other to jump together over the same cliff.