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Republicans Need Their Conservative Insurgents


Narratives are essential to politics. They frame our understanding of issues, inform the political affiliations we choose, and help dictate the proper course of action in the service of our political goals. But the danger of reducing politics to simple narratives of competing factions is the tendency to blur meaningful distinctions within common categories and to mask the real contrasts between different actors’ goals.

New York Times columnist David Brooks has a narrative about conservative opposition to the Republican establishment, defining his categories by reference to their openness or hostility to playing the inside-game politics to achieve conservative ends. In short, the establishment is defined by its hold on the levers of power and use of those levers to govern, achieving conservative reforms where possible; the counter-establishment, enraged by its outside status, seeks to gum up the works.

It’s a common story many observers and members of the Right have adopted. But like many other reductive political narratives, it confuses more than it clarifies.

Outsider Politicians Are Policy Entrepreneurs

Brooks’ narrative is hopelessly flawed because it cannot explain why the vast majority of policy entrepreneurship today in the U.S. Senate comes from senators like Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, and Ben Sasse, whom the establishment opposed in their primaries. It also does nothing to explain the commitment to policy reform of the House Freedom Caucus or the fact that the Freedom Caucus deserves more credit than any group for the fact Paul Ryan—celebrated by many in the so-called “establishment” as a model of constructive conservatism—is currently speaker.

The vast majority of policy entrepreneurship in the U.S. Senate comes from senators the establishment opposed.

Brooks’ error stems from misunderstanding the role of insiders (elected officials and their staffs, and to some extent revolving-door lobbyists) and outside organizations (the rest of us in the public policy space) in the center-right governing effort. He seems to largely view the role of the two groups as highly differentiated. Insiders have their hands on the levers of power, and use that power to muddle through the day-to-day task of governing, hoping to achieve modest conservative victories along the way.

For Brooks and many others, the proper role of outsiders is merely to support those modest accomplishments while engaging primarily in long-term conflict with the Left to create a better governing environment down the road.

These two roles exist and are critical, but they are not mutually exclusive. If conservative policies are to become a reality, insiders must think not just about the short-term but also the long-term conflict with the Left, and outsiders must participate in the grueling day-to-day.

Conservatives Can’t Be about Placating Interest Groups

This dynamic is inherently more challenging for those of us on the Right, who have good reason to believe that politicians’ incentives to placate various factional constituencies are so often at odds with the long-term effort to rein in the federal footprint. While political parties can exist as factions rather than ideological entities, conservatism cannot succeed as a factional constituency to a political party.

Politicians’ incentives to placate various factional constituencies are so often at odds with the long-term effort to rein in the federal footprint.

Several years ago, Ross Douthat identified the Obama-era GOP’s worst tendency as “[n]ot an ideological extremism, exactly, but rather a vision of government that you might call ‘small government for thee, but not for me,’ in which conservatism is just constituent services for the most reliable Republican groups and voters.” This is the worst of Republicanism, and it is incompatible with conservatives’ long-term project.

The GOP could exist as a political party by handing out patronage to its constituent groups—a prescription drug benefit for seniors, corporate agriculture pork masquerading as a farm bill, Export-Import Bank loans to Boeing. Conservatism, however, has no chance of advancing an agenda in this type of factionalized party.

A conservative reform effort, therefore, requires the Republican Party to forego factional politics and the patronage role of elected officials in favor of winning the argument on a conservative articulation of public policy. We must have the confidence that our reform ideas will best serve the nation and, realistically, if the government we have today has been built over 100 years by progressives with a vastly different conception of good policy, it will require attacking the status quo in a manner that makes niche constituencies nervous.

This Is Why We Need Right-Wing Institutions

The Left does not face this conundrum, and therefore does not bemoan its politicians going to Washington and finding the Potomac River water tastes nice. They have it easier because, by the nature of the Left’s political coalition, the incentives of a liberal politician are so often the same as the incentives of a progressive activist: to amass power so he or she can give more to the constituencies that make up a big-government coalition.

The incentives of a liberal politician match those of a progressive activist: to amass power to give more to the constituencies that make up a big-government coalition.

To compensate for this disparity—the fact that the politics and policy of the Democratic Party and the Left align, while the self-interested politics of the Republican establishment are so often at odds with conservative principles—the Right has built institutions which in addition to winning the fight with the Left act to push our politicians to live up to the ideals of our movement. This accountability role of outside groups is not unproductive. It is critical to any chance a conservative coalition has of winning and then governing.

One of these institutions is The Heritage Foundation and, here, Brooks gets his history fabulously wrong. Heritage was founded by Edwin J. Feulner, a man sufficiently part of the Reagan governing majority that he served as the head of Reagan’s domestic policy transition in 1980 and in 1988 was given the Presidential Citizens Medal by Reagan. Yet Feulner was far from an establishment figure.

Prior to starting Heritage, he led an effort by House conservatives to defeat President Nixon’s signature domestic policy initiative—the Family Assistance Plan—by working with the Congressional Black Caucus on a procedural effort to defeat the rule that would have brought the bill up in the House. Fighting a rule was exactly the procedural mechanism this past summer that caused Speaker John Boehner to target the House Freedom Caucus for retribution.

This accountability role of outside groups is not unproductive. It is critical to any chance a conservative coalition has.

In November of 1981, Heritage released a report on the first year of the Reagan administration, giving it a score of 60 percent—“pass, needs improvement,” Feulner said. Heritage’s legacy of holding center-right politicians accountable wasn’t limited to pushing Reagan. Feulner and George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, got in a heated argument over Bush’s reversal of his no new taxes pledge.

The argument ended with Feulner reminding Sununu that Heritage would be around long after the Bush administration ended. Heritage later fought bitterly with Republicans in 2003 over the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit and in recent years with Speaker Boehner over his visionless leadership of the House Republican majority.

Outsiders Advocate for Citizens’ Interests

Brooks and many who think like him want to over-tribalize the conservative movement. There are good conservatives, they say, who engage in the battle of ideas and leave the day-to-day politics of governing to the politicians, and bad conservatives who throw spitballs from the cheap seats, presumably engaged in some sort of purity-for-profit racket.

Brooks and many who think like him want to over-tribalize the conservative movement.

Debate about the art of the possible in governing between those in power and those on the outside is a good thing. It forces more dynamic thinking on our side. The view that the outsiders on the Right need to leave our elected officials alone to do the best they can is popular in DC, but the contempt those who advance it have—Brooks once called Sen. Robert Bennett’s defeat at Lee’s hands “a damn shame”—have for the role of outside constituent pressure is causing many Americans to check out of politics or give up on the Republican Party.

Some concerned about the aggressively anti-Washington energy behind the outsider impulses in this year’s presidential field call it an ugly strain of thinking that pollutes the center-right movement. That’s not what is going on.

People are nervous about the economic, physical and moral security of our nation. They view Washington as complacent. They feel unheard by the process. The job of those involved in public policy—on both the inside and the outside—is to understand where this anxiety comes from and harness it towards a unifying, conservative reform agenda.