Brokering the Battle of Ideas

A political movement’s success must be judged ultimately by how much change it causes, or prevents, in society. The Right has been greatly frustrated in this respect by the fact that the presidency seems unattainable by any serious conservative not named Ronald Reagan.

Serious conservatives do not win presidential nominations. And even a more moderate conservative is handicapped by the difficult Electoral College map, the probably worsening nationwide minority status of the GOP, and the Democratic base’s impressive solidity in recent elections. Since a Reagan-like presidency doesn’t seem to be in the cards, the Right must make the most of Republican congressional clout in order to substantially affect federal policy. One need not align with Donald Trump or the Tea Party to recognize that the Right has fallen short in these respects throughout the demoralizing Obama years. (Indeed, even the Reagan presidency was far from a “revolution” in domestic affairs, though that descriptor has often been used.)

Conservatives and libertarians have consoled themselves with three—well, let’s not call them excuses. We’ll call them beliefs: 1) that bloated statism, and also cultural Marxism, are finally unsustainable in real-world conditions and will inevitably be reversed (a faith often expressed in the circular adage: “If something cannot continue, it will not continue”); 2) that there exists a meaningfully conservative or freedom-loving “silent majority,” justifying conservatives’ confidence that “the American people” will someday (presumably not too late) revolt more decisively than they previously have; and 3) that “we are winning the battle of ideas.”

The third consolation seems to me the least unrealistic. Jason Stahl’s Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture since 1945 could thus be—quite against the author’s will, it would seem—a real boost to conservative/libertarian morale by lending substance to the “winning the battle of ideas” mantra. Stahl, a historian at the University of Minnesota, seems to pine for a vanished technocratic mid-20th century when the Right had little voice in expert-level public policy advocacy, which at the time, on his account, was characterized by academic rigor despite its big-government tendencies.

Although the book’s title may sound gimmicky, its meaning gradually emerges in Stahl’s largely colorless, but quite clear and well-organized, pages. Right Moves is focused on conservative think tanks’ successful public, media, and inside-the-Beltway relations rather than either the scholarship and evidence behind major policy offerings or a detailed analysis of how often, and how, they were enacted. Stahl presents the American Enterprise Institute—and especially the Heritage Foundation, which he deems the more important of the two think tanks—above all as highly successful political projects. In his telling, their historically liberal counterpart, the much older Brookings Institution, lost (as did liberals in general) the lamentable “marketplace of ideas” contest ingeniously sparked by AEI and Heritage. This occurred partly because Brookings was much less political—making, for example, a Republican, Bruce MacLaury, its president in the late 1970s as it sought a reputation for balance to mitigate the Brookings image of advocate of Great Society liberalism.

As Stahl recounts, the leaders of the right-of-center think tanks, notwithstanding their institutions’ often dubious policy products, made a crucial, enduringly successful (and thus “right”) move in the battle of ideas: they established the conservative think tanks as major players in the federal policy debate—not through social scientific excellence, but by persuading much of Washington and the national media that an idea deserved attention simply because it came from the hitherto underrepresented Right. Once these elites accepted the principle of competition among ideologically identified policy perspectives, the technocratic ideal of objectively superior answers based on pure expertise was displaced, in his view. Loose thinking—of which his preeminent example is supply-side economics—was able to win more credibility than it deserved, leading to President Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts.

The chapters on the 1990s and 2000s make a similar point about what Stahl considers the wrong, Republican version of welfare reform that President Clinton signed in 1996, and the Washington foreign policy community’s unfortunate bipartisan support for war with Iraq in the years after 9/11. In his final paragraph, Stahl voices a hope that the policy marketplace might become “truly diverse as opposed to ‘balanced’ between various conservative positions. The Internet and media fragmentation may make such diversity possible heading into the future.” But he doesn’t describe or argue for such a scenario, he merely raises it.

Right Moves does especially well in drawing attention to the distinction between policy development and policy brokerage—or, to put it more bluntly, salesmanship. The more activist Heritage Foundation on Capitol Hill, co-founded in 1973 by “movement” conservatives Edwin Feulner and Paul Weyrich, has rather frankly stressed the latter while also emphasizing a close connection to, and funding from, grassroots conservatives as distinct from the more elite-oriented, and less ideological, model followed by the American Enterprise Institute downtown. Founded in 1962 as the new incarnation of the similarly free-market American Economic Association, AEI maintained a slower, more academic style and a far more inhibited attitude toward congressional and political impact under its first president, William Baroody, Sr. (despite his leadership of the Goldwater campaign “brain trust” while on leave in 1964).

To enliven the difference between the older, policy-development model, and the newer, policy-brokerage model in the think tank world, Stahl repeats a familiar—and, he implies, perhaps untrue—but illuminating anecdote. A crusty right-wing aide to President Nixon, Lyn Nofziger (better known as a major Reagan staffer), is said to have flared at movement donor Joseph Coors, when the latter mentioned a recent meeting with Baroody:

“AEI? AEI? I’ll tell you about AEI.” He got up from his desk and walked over to his library. He pulled a study off the shelf and literally blew a cloud of dust off of it. “Their stuff is good for libraries. But it is not timely and nobody around here uses any of it.” According to Weyrich, Coors told him later “that it was at this moment that he decided to go with us [Heritage].”

In 1978, William Baroody, Jr. took over AEI and did a less effective job than his father, Stahl indicates, in part because he made the same mistake as Brookings in these years: trying to become more politically balanced. Until well into the 1980s, the newer Heritage Foundation, to put it just a bit crudely, was eating AEI’s lunch: “In the marketplace of ideas, Heritage was selling the stronger product—a forthright conservatism.”

In addition to his heavy emphasis on the Right’s two main think tanks inside the Beltway, Stahl also pays some, probably not enough, attention to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the libertarian Cato Institute, which moved from San Francisco to Washington in 1982 and which has been heavily supported by Charles Koch. He provides a fuller treatment of rightward policy moves among Democrats, not least Bill Clinton, after the Democratic Leadership Council was formed in 1985 in partial response to two humiliating losses at the hands of Reagan. The DLC spawned the arguably misnamed (because in Stahl’s view barely liberal) Progressive Policy Institute, which, like Heritage, was geared to “churning out fast ideas for policymakers.” Stahl makes the conventional but reasonable case that these relatively centrist projects had much, he clearly believes too much, success in pushing liberals to make a business-minded (or jobs-oriented) turn away from welfare-state policy values. These projects also played no small role in the 1990s Democrats’ growing embrace of a free trade agenda previously associated more with Republicans.

In taking his hitherto detailed story rather thinly up to the present, Stahl gives little space to three major developments at Heritage during the Obama years: its opposition to the Affordable Care Act despite its previous advocacy of what arguably became key elements of Obamacare; the new grassroots mobilizing arm, Heritage Action, established in 2010; and, after the 2012 election, the naming of then-Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a zealous Tea Party figure, to the Heritage presidency upon the legendarily successful Ed Feulner’s retirement.

The last two developments especially deserve attention because, articles at the time showed, they resulted in changes that caused both internal discontent and dismay among Washingtonians who were previously more respectful of Heritage. And there is no reference at all to AEI’s quite distinctive new president, the self-consciously compassionate conservative Arthur Brooks, who took its helm at the beginning of 2009.

Another shortcoming in Right Moves is the minuscule attention to the rise and success of a wide range of state-level policy outfits on the Right, including the Mackinac Center in Michigan and the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in Virginia, and to specialized organizations such as the Manhattan Institute for city- and state-level policy and the Claremont Institute in California, which stresses constitutionalism and the principles of the American Founding.

A more thorough, more engaging history of conservative and libertarian think tanks, whether partisan or not in approach, remains to be written. But this is no hatchet job, despite its author’s biases. Stahl rightly shows think tanks as a conservative success story, and the history he tells reassuringly reminds us that much of the American Right has focused on a solutions-oriented “battle of ideas” (if policy recommendations qualify for such an elevated term), not on angry rhetoric or power for its own sake.