Establishments and Our Money: A Response To Avik Roy

Following my essay on the nature of the Establishment vs Tea Party or Outsider divide on the Right as driven primarily by a divide over whether and how we can roll back the seemingly endless growth of spending and the size of government, a number of people offered criticisms. Some noted that there are longstanding divides between the DC-based professional class (officeholders, staffers, pundits and journalists who have a direct stake in particular people having political power) and those outside. Which is true and a contributing factor (as any student of public choice theory could tell you), but not new, and in any event self-defeating definition: if the people in power are definitionally opposed to those without, then new elections are purposeless exercises. History tells us otherwise: the professional class may restrain and co-opt, but there are always those officeholders (new and experienced) who are willing to stick their necks out for genuine changes in the long-term trajectory of public policy. Others pointed to the cultural divide such as the one that Angelo Codevilla identified in his 2010 essay distinguishing between a Ruling Class and a Country Party. Codevilla’s analysis is certainly a useful part of the debate, and is another longstanding fault line that laid the groundwork for the current schism. But it doesn’t really reflect why now, at this time, conservatives are willing to lock horns with the organs of Republican and conservative leadership that, in the Bush years, commanded a good deal of loyalty from the rank and file – willing enough to line up cheering throngs of responsible citizens behind the most unlikely of 21st century populist champions, Newt Gingrich.
The most sustained critique comes from sometime National Review contributor Avik Roy, writing in Forbes. Roy calls Redstate a “bastion of populist conservatism,” which is true even if I’m not exactly anybody’s idea of a populist. He says that Ben Domenech is “one of the best conservative writers on health care issues,” which is certainly true, and faults the rest of us at RedState for not developing “serious proposals for entitlement reform,” in contrast to NR’s columnists – which should be unsurprising to Roy if he thinks about the fact that most of us have day jobs, to say nothing of the fact that RedState’s principal role is activism rather than think-tankery.
Roy seems most upset at my references to National Review, which is a shame, because as I said I have nothing against NR, and I agree with Roy that NR as a whole still provides an awful lot of good punditry, analysis and advocacy (and I remain a big fan of many of its long-time writers); I was just trying to explain precisely why so many people on the Right were agitated at it. In any event, Roy misses some crucially important points that undermine his entire argument.

To begin with, Roy completely ignores everything that has happened on Capitol Hill since, well, ever. There’s a reason I started by citing the Boehner-McConnell divide as the front lines of the current schism, yet Roy doesn’t even bother to discuss the current dynamics in Congress, let alone the long and dolorous history of efforts to get Congress to restrain the growth of spending, entitlements and the size of government.
This is related to the larger failing in Roy’s analysis, which is to equate having position papers with being serious about reform:

National Review has been the leading source of detailed conservative proposals and thoughtful conservative opinion on entitlement reform. People like Yuval Levin and Jim Capretta, who write regularly for NR, have effectively dedicated their careers to the cause of entitlement reform.

The rhetoric of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum may be less inflammatory, but it is backed up with real proposals that stand a chance of getting passed by an actual Congress.

As anyone with a passing familiarity with Republican politics over the past four or five decades knows, conservative magazines and think tanks have been making detailed entitlement reform proposals for most of those years, and Republicans running for offices high and low have been running on platforms of reducing the size and cost of government for just as long. And then nothing happens.
That’s why Congress’ battles over the debt ceiling and related issues provide such a potent example. Basically all Republican Senators profess to be in favor of smaller government, and yet so few are willing to go to the barricades to make it a reality. Now, I’m a realist – there are limits to how much we could expect even a completely united GOP to bring home as long as Obama is the President and Harry Reid the Senate Majority Leader. But the repeated spectacle of leading pundits and Beltway Republicans tut-tutting Boehner and company for even trying to use their leverage to exact real concessions is a sign that the message Republican voters have been sending is not getting through to everyone.
(I will leave aside for the moment the detailed arguments over policy alternatives, except to make the obvious point that, to the extent Roy is framing of the debate as one about deficits and how to “fix Medicare” and “compromise with the dastardly forces of statism” with plans like Ryan-Wyden rather than how to reduce the overall footprint of public spending in relation to the private sector economy, he is illustrating rather than responding to my argument.)
The related point here – and one that says much about why RedState has put so much energy into intra-party primary battles rather than the production of white papers – is that personnel is policy. The ideas are already there; what is lacking is the necessary corps of people with the will to fight for them. As the other presidential contenders have faded by now, in the case of the presidential race I’ll focus at this point on Romney (the candidate who unquestionably has drawn the most loyal support from elected officials, NR editorials and other spots on the commanding heights of Republican politics) and Gingrich, who I previously identified as a sort-of-Outsider (albeit not as fundamentally as Rick Perry) and who has (like Perry) drawn a disproportionate amount of scorn from people who you might think of as allies to his cause.
It’s true that if you plow through Romney’s gazillion-point plans you will find things worth fighting for. The problem is convincing anybody that Mitt Romney, of all people, would actually go to the mattresses to get them done. Besides noting that “Romney is saddled, as we know, with Romneycare,” Roy gives the element of leadership short shrift, yet it is at the center of the disquiet with Romney and his actual record in office. It’s why it is troubling to see talk from Romney backers about replacing rather than repealing Obamacare, and positively alarming to see senior Romney advisor Norm Coleman say

“We’re not going to do repeal. You’re not going to repeal Obamacare… It’s not a total repeal… You will not repeal the act in its entirety, but you will see major changes, particularly if there is a Republican president… You can’t whole-cloth throw it out. But you can substantially change what’s been done.”

Gingrich, as I have noted before, is an odd fit with the anti-Establishment movement he now finds himself leading, not only because he is so long inside the Beltway and so steeped in its ways (albeit with a nearly endless list of enemies there) but because he’s not fundamentally a small-government guy. But the anti-Establishment, Outsider, Tea Party movement appears to be rapidly consolidating behind him as a vessel to stop Romney for reasons that are hardly irrational: Newt is a fighter and an iconoclast by temperament and a powerful spokesman for conservative ideas, but he’s also a guy with an actual record. As Newt loves to note, the 1996 welfare reform is the closest we’ve come to actual government-shrinking entitlement reform in living memory. Newt spearheaded a national reform that took millions of Americans off the welfare rolls, cutting caseloads in half by 2000; Romney created an entitlement to add about 400,000 people to the taxpayer-subsidized pool in Massachusetts alone. And, as Josh Kraushaar notes, Newt on the stump is a good deal more substantive in his presentation than Romney. (This is one reason why Newt won out over Rick Perry, an experienced and knowledgeable governor who was never able to communicate his accomplishments and understanding of public policy to voters). Voters may be looking skeptically at campaign promises as opposed to records in office, but they very rationally view a candidate’s willingness to verbalize strong positions as a necessary predicate to carrying them out.
Roy goes on to say:

Conservatives have a well-earned suspicion of anything that comes out of the Northeast, and of Ivy League-educated coastal elites in general. The thinking goes that, since most Northeasterners and Ivy Leaguers are liberals, the so-called conservatives who come out of these places must be liberals also. Conversely, conservatives who come out of red states must be true conservatives.

As a lifelong New Yorker and Wall Street lawyer with an Ivy League law degree, I may not be the best target for Roy’s caricature, but even aside from that, it’s pretty clear that most Tea Partiers understand perfectly that the ability to fight for real change is not about what state you come from but what you do to move the needle in the place you serve. Chris Christie, though basically a moderate Republican, has become a cult hero for his willingness to play hardball with public employee unions; ditto Scott Walker in the Land of LaFollette. I’m hardly alone among current Newt supporters in having once backed Rudy Giuliani for President, because Rudy made major, lasting changes in New York City’s liberal governance that made the city a better place to live – Rudy may have unraveled as the 2008 campaign wore on, but his status for much of 2007 as the national polling frontrunner based on his actual accomplishments in office implies a more nuanced view of the movement that has now swung, at least for the moment, behind a Ph.D. historian.
The point of my essay was not to denounce anyone, but to explain the history and depth of the current popular distrust on the Right of leaders who seem unwilling to lead. The battle to restrain runaway government spending is so much smoke and mirrors unless the people who profess to support it in word are dedicated to it in deed. No wealth of position papers, endorsements and Power Point presentations can demonstrate that. Voters and activists who have figured this out are rightly skeptical of those who don’t seem to “get it”. And they are more than willing to embrace flawed champions – even such a creature of the Beltway as Newt Gingrich – if they demonstrate the willingness to actually do something to stop the runaway train of federal spending. Every time some Beltway figure calls Newt or some Tea Party candidate crazy, voters think again, “he might actually be crazy enough to upset some applecarts to get things done.”
The world of the Right is not divided into pure heroes and villains on this issue, and more than a few people and institutions with as many or more accomplishments in the movement as Newt Gingrich have fallen out of favor (as Newt himself did more than a decade ago), for growing too comfortable with an overgrown Washington – they’ve lived long enough to see themselves become the villain, and the voters have moved on.
Because it’s not about heroes and villains. This is democratic self-government, not theater. It’s about results.

15 thoughts on “Establishments and Our Money: A Response To Avik Roy”

  1. Crank –
    One thing I think gets Romney get’s no credit for is his battle against entrenched bureaucracies and corruption in MA.
    Real quick:
    1. Balanced budgets – yes he in part raised fees to do this, but he also cut program funding wherever possible – not a union that likes him in MA.
    2. Fighting against the Beacon Hill patronage machine: Billy Bulger at UMass and trying to consolidate highway commission and MA Pike – this is what caused Christie (not NJ Christie, Cape Cod Christie) to run 3rd party.
    3. Fighting against supreme court (albeit losing) on other issues (got ballot over ride to state legislature where it was killed.)
    We had 12 years of Republican governors in Teddy’s MA, and pretty much the liberals had no problem with him – but they hated Mitt. Go figure.
    Also – RomneyCare was adopted from Heritage foundation, i.e. getting through a conservative think tanks proposal. Now everyone and their dog claims they knew it would suck, but at the time it wasn’t so universally hated. (His big flaw here was being a utopian with regards to the legislature, they changed the rules over his veto in about half a second.)
    That doesn’t make up for his other numerous flaws as a candidate – just wanted to point out in MA he was more anti-establishment than people realize. (Another thing about governors, what the legislature looks like, and the offices strength or weakness versus other branches and other elected officials really matters.)

  2. My fear is that in the process of electing someone who will “do something about” excessive spending,” the base will invariably elect someone who wants “total electoral victory” as Roy puts it, before anything is done to fix the current problem. Is he really wrong about that?
    Look at what the Republican House passed in an effort to fix the spending problem – a bill that included a balanced budget amendment, of all things! Under what circumstances would that ever get passed without the Republicans controlling the House, Senate and Presidency? I’d be fine if that were a mere bargaining chip, but I don’t get the impression that the base would tolerate much compromise.

  3. Ironically, for all Newt’s combativeness and big agendas, that’s one thing I do like about his record – at the end of the day, he’s a guy who understands from experience how Congress works and what is and isn’t feasible.

  4. I continue to find Crank’s essays on Mitt and Newt odd. That’s especially the case when writing about Newt and leadership. Because, as anyone who lived through the 1990s should know, Newt was an *absolutely horrible leader*. I mean, within 4 years of an historic victory in 1994, he was *overthrown by his own troops*. Moreover, citing the pyrrhic victory of welfare reform as an exemplar of his leadership is especially odd — Newt’s welfare reform compromise not only cemented another 4 years of Bill Clinton’s Presidency but also paved the way for the big government conservatism of George W. Bush.
    Morevoer, based on their respective records, there is no reason to think that Newt would be any more of a leader for conservative reform than Mitt would. Newt embraced the big government individual mandate, global warming, etc., etc. He compromises in favor of big government just as much, if not more than, Mitt.
    What it comes down to, I think, is that Newt is much at, as Ace put it, Cheap Date Conservatism – taunts of the liberal media and soundbites of anger. And that is just what so many on the populist right want right now. And, hey, I like attacking the media as much as the next conservative. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that that will help beat Obama *at all*.

  5. I lost some respect for NR when I was really surprised at the vitriol from Frum and the NR bunch when W nominated Miers. Frum clearly had a very nasty personal animus toward her. Regardless of the merits, I would have expected the rest of the NR folks to seek more objectivity instead of piling on as they did. The contrast with Beldar’s treatment was stark.

  6. I think in rushing away from Romney to Newt certain parts of the GOP are making a mistake. Newt is paying no price for their support and therefor will not be containable when he goes off reservation.
    Over at Campaign Spot:
    My point is we’re arguing about which replacement level SS should get the start when we don’t know if the pitcher is Righty or Lefty. We’d be better off constructively containing there post election options, and working on the most conservative senate ever.
    Either Mitt or Newt will be infinitely better than BHO, but they are both within the margins of replacement level candidate.
    (BTW – No one knows how good either will be as president. One of the major issues is repealing Obamacare, depends on senate really. Another is reforming tax and entitlements – who knows what a president will or won’t do. Another is foreign policy – BHO has been surprisingly strong compared to his campaign rhetoric. Finally – the supreme court, but St. Regan of the Conservative Three Stool appointed Day O’C and Kennedy, floppy moderates, and George W. Compassionate Conservative apointed Steely Roberts and Alito – so who can really predict?)
    If whoever wins the nomination is fatally wounded from the primary battle, the haters will have to answer for why they did it. And if whoever wins flops worse than expected the supporters will have to answer.
    May you vote during interesting presidential primaries.

  7. Good series of posts.
    Folks citing Newt’s failures of speaker don’t know what they are talking about. Hacks like Tom Delay drove him out because they wanted to consolidate their power and preserve their positions; they did absolutely nothing to advance conservative legislation after Newt was out. Newt had remarkable success advancing conservative legislation and fighting establishment concerns.
    Also, Crank, you’re nailing the reasons for Newt’s support. He can articulate conservatism. What’s too bad is Pawlenty also could, but not in short digestible sound bites. He had a radio show in the Twin Cities that was excellent, always defending conservatism well. It’s too bad he didn’t stick it out.
    Also, I still don’t get Redstate’s decision to back Perry. He was never going to be that guy. There are a dozen other governors who can more instinctively articulate conservatism than Perry.

  8. Newt’s strongest point: He can articulate conservatism
    Newt’s weakest point: He can articulate conservatism
    You are called wingnuts because no matter the position once your “opposition” takes a side similar to yours you can’t let it go; you have to push it more and more. You don’t govern, you scream and bully. You don’t advance points, you lie (want an example? Newt claiming Obama hasn’t advanced any employment plans, after you guys excoriate him for advancing plans that cost money). You waged a two front war without learning from history: We call it Viet Nam. You see, you don’t send troops into conflict without clear rules of engagement, and you don’t hamper their ability to engage. Not permitting the troops to reduce the Tora Bora Mountains to slag; to not chase the Taliban into Pakistan; to not send special forces after the enemy into Pakistan. Obama did (well the last two anyway). And you waged that two front war while getting a tax cut and not paying for it; propping up foreign owned oil companies but willing to let American companies wither.
    That is conservatism, and Newt articulates it well. If that is what you call a conservative value, you might want to look up the meaning of the word value. (Hint: it’s not the high sugar value size meal Sarah Palin loves to send to fat kids).

  9. Jeez, Daryl, could you possibly be more incoherent?
    Romney created an entitlement to add about 400,000 people to the taxpayer-subsidized pool in Massachusetts alone.
    Let’s be a little more clear here, can we? Those 400,00 people were getting a subsidized entitlement already. I’m okay with busting Mitt on this issue because he did what I would not have done. But to phrase this as if suddenly some people were getting some stuff free that they weren’t getting free before is inaccurate.

  10. Uh Sponge, have you pulled a little something out of the right wing playbook? Inventing a quote, attributing it to me and then telling me why I was wrong? I wasn’t incoherent, but you certainly were imaginative!

  11. Daryl, after giving you as much attention as you deserve, I moved on to Crank’s post. If you had read Crank’s post, you would have (should have) picked up on this. Not reading Crank’s post may be the reason your comment made no sense.

  12. No Sponge, you wrote it in a manner that made it sound as though I wrote that. Which, I grant you, is in the Right Wingnut playbook—invent something fictional and play against that. All it takes is a few poorly places commas. Grammar counts. Design counts. Yes, facts too should count.

  13. Daryl,
    Come on, Daryl. You misread Sponge’s post, plain and simple. It happens – just apologize and move on. Saying that he wrote it that way just to make you look bad is ridiculous, especially when his quote is right in Crank’s post.

  14. “Jeez, Daryl, could you possibly be more incoherent?”

    This sentence makes sense when you realize “incoherent” means “factually uncomfortable to me”.

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