The Wonks of Sam’s Club

(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Doublethink.)

Conservatives in 2008 are stuck in a monumental funk. Worries about conservatism’s lack of fresh ideas are nothing new, but the path back to success at the ballot box seems more elusive than ever, as Democrats have proven markedly more apt at seizing upon economic uncertainty in recent years.

Few seem more aware of this predicament than two of conservatism’s brightest young lights: Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. The two are engaged in a mission to give conservatism a shot in the arm, and they are candid about the gravity of the challenge that conservatives face from the near perfect storm driving the ascendancy of the Democrats.

“They are going to win elections,” pronounces Salam. “They’re going to win elections as economic nationalists, they’re going to win elections by promising solutions that were dated and hoary and broken in 1975.”

Douthat and Salam occupy a somewhat unusual place in the constellation of Washington’s opinion elite: Both traffic in conservative ideas, but neither is formally affiliated with a conservative think tank or magazine. Douthat is a senior editor at the Atlantic, while Salam is an associate editor at the Atlantic and a fellow at the New America Foundation. (Salam also serves as a contributing editor at Doublethink.) They are, like their intellectual predecessors David Brooks and William Kristol, right-leaning ambassadors to the East Coast commentariat.

In a recent interview with Salam and Douthat at a dive bar near their Atlantic offices, the contrast between the two is clear: Salam is quick-witted and hyperactive, liberally peppering his statements with footnotes, while Douthat speaks in measured, premeditated paragraphs and appears slightly embarrassed when Doublethink’s photographer takes him aside to pose by the window.

Douthat and Salam don’t exactly clash conversationally so much as seize upon each other’s lines, rapidly and repeatedly, indifferent to the din of the happy hour crowd and the blare of Bob Dylan through the speakers. The two are discussing Representative Tom Davis’s recent memo to the House Republican leadership, in which the Virginia Republican despairs that “the brand name is bad; money is in short supply; we’ve lost two special elections in safe districts and there is no organized plan to move ahead.”

The memo is pertinent to the topic at hand: Douthat and Salam’s new book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, comes amid the season of soul-searching for conservatives. While Republicans eventually accepted Senator John McCain as their presidential nominee, for a time it seemed that they, unlike the Democrats, had no candidates that they actually liked. Republicans still face an uphill battle in creating the kind of coalition that delivered George W. Bush to victory in 2004, with McCain struggling to attract a bloc of voters who wouldn’t feel out of place, as Douthat and Salam like to say, at a Sam’s Club.

Douthat and Salam want to re-orient domestic policy to the needs and aspirations of the Sam’s Club voter, who likely voted for George W. Bush but is now tempted by the economic populism of Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. Their policy ideas—which range from wage subsidies to a DARPA-like analogue for spurring growth in environmental research—are a stiff retort not only to the traditional liberal approach, but to the approach proffered by the Chamber of Commerce strain of conservatives as well.

Davis’s memo comes to a conclusion not unlike that of Douthat and Salam’s book—that conservatives have to change, and revive, their brand. But Davis’s policy prescriptions—striking back at Democrats with issues such as national security, capital gains taxes, and a lagging stock market—aren’t in line with their overall prognosis.

“It had good analysis, but its prescriptions were not like Christie Todd Whitman prescriptions, they were more like John Boehner prescriptions, you know, we need to get to the message of tax cuts, and so on,” Douthat explains.

“The real issue is including more people in this broad umbrella of a growing, flourishing economy,” Salam agrees. “We need to roll up our sleeves and think about what the economy is going to look like in 20 or 30 years.” 

Reform Conservatism

Douthat and Salam are not without compatriots in their Sam’s Club agenda. They count former White House staffer Yuval Levin and National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru as allies. All four are under the age of 35: Douthat and Salam are 28, Levin is 31, and Ponnuru is 33.

The four writers claim disparate intellectual influences on their work, but all evince an abiding interest in the government’s role in shaping American culture and, perhaps just as important, a lack of interest in ideological purism.

Levin, now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, came to Washington to serve under his graduate school mentor, University of Chicago professor Leon Kass, at the President’s Council on Bioethics. He spent time at Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and still plans to finish his graduate dissertation—an examination of Edmund Burke’s and Thomas Paine’s conceptions of how liberal democracy should work.

It’s not a far cry, Levin says, from his less theoretical work on the conservative agenda in 2008. In Burke, Levin finds “a commitment to a certain kind of change, a change that takes into account what works best about your society. It’s less religious. It’s also not a backwards-looking or a nostalgic conservatism, but it’s how to manage change.”

Ponnuru is a social conservative, and his 2006 book The Party of Death, an indictment of Democrats’ track record on abortion issues, is a testament to that. But he points to self-professed libertarian Charles Murray, whose influential writings on human intelligence and welfare reform have drawn no shortage of controversy, as an inspiration. He also cites Frank Meyer, a one-time National Review editor whose “fusionism” of libertarianism and conservatism found adherents in the Reagan administration and among Republican revolutionaries of 1994. “The libertarians I’ve found persuasive have always had a social conservative bent to them as well,” Ponnuru says.

Douthat also counts himself as a social conservative and, like Ponnuru, he is a Catholic. But he is careful to clarify that, to whatever degree Catholic social thought defines his political thinking, he is first and foremost a proponent of pragmatic policy-making. In fact, many Catholics would likely take issue with some of the book’s proposals, especially its plans to “sharpen the incentives” for welfare recipients to lift themselves out of dependency. “I believe in Catholic social doctrine, even broadly understood,” Douthat says, “but I think there’s a reason [Senator Ted Kennedy] considers himself steeped in Catholic social doctrine.”

Salam’s politics are eclectic: He describes himself as a “neoliberal to neoconservative wonk” and spent time at the New Republic as a reporter-researcher. He often focuses on comparative approaches to policy, musing, for example, about analogies between the Sam’s Club thesis and the governing philosophy behind Germany’s Christian Democratic Union.

Douthat and Salam admit the influence, at least in part, of New York Times columnist David Brooks on their work. Salam worked for Brooks as a research assistant and calls him a “kind of godfather of reformist conservatism” and points to “national greatness conservatism”—a phrase coined by Brooks and Weekly Standard editor William Kristol—as a forerunner of the new reformism. In 1997, Kristol and Brooks wrote a joint op-ed in the Wall Street Journal touting national greatness conservatism. It suggested that “the way to restore faith in our government is to slash its flabbiness while making it more effective.” Reform conservatives, like the national greatness conservatives before them, dissent from the anti-government enthusiasms of many on the Right.

Still, Douthat, Salam, Levin, and Ponnuru insist that they are not calling for a radical redrawing of the conservative agenda. Rather, they seek a more practical embrace of reform. Levin calls for “a comprehensive reform agenda” for McCain and Republicans, but he never adopts the “reformist” label—perhaps a signal of its modest status as a non-ideology. So what to call it? Douthat and Salam favor “applied neoconservatism,” after former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson’s welfare reform efforts in the 1990s, which they laud as having transformed the state’s social safety net “through ideologically ambidextrous means.”

Whatever you prefer to call it—with conservatives chastened by the governing philosophy of George W. Bush—reform conservatism seems to offer a promising new direction.

A Smarter Version of Huckabeeism?

So who’s the standard-bearer for this new brand of conservatism? There has been a temptation to ascribe the reform agenda to the unexpectedly spirited presidential campaign of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Attracting a largely Southern and evangelical following, Huckabee held unorthodox, if scattershot, views for a Republican in a presidential primary. Like the reformist conservatives, Huckabee consciously eschewed anti-government themes in his rhetoric. But the comparison is one they shrug off, in large part because of Huckabee’s limited appeal beyond evangelical voters and his curious collection of policy proposals, which included a national sales tax.

“I think that the easy way to read it is that it’s Huckabeeism, or a smarter version of Huckabeeism,” says Salam. “But actually we’re trying to draw in a lot of these different strands and change the subject of the debate.”

“There isn’t a Huckabeeism,” chimes in Douthat. “There’s just sort of rhetoric unmoored.”

But the Huckabee boomlet and the interest in reform conservatism cannot be seen as altogether coincidental. While the Republican electoral coalition has held together in recent years largely because of shared positions on national security issues, polls show that a new predominance of domestic concerns over foreign threats, and lack of confidence in the federal government, have left the party in its most compromised position in over a decade.

While much of the conservative opinion elite has continued to rifle through the traditional catalog of tax-cutting and foreign policy hawkishness to find a prevailing theme for the nomination of maverick McCain, the “Sam’s Club” narrative fits snugly into the concerns outlined in polling of low-to-middle income voters.

The reform-minded agenda has not eluded the attention of commentators. The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote that “any Republican politician worried about his party’s eroding base and grim prospects should make a careful study” of Douthat and Salam’s book. David Brooks called his readers’ attention to Levin’s “brilliant” Weekly Standard essay on a blueprint for a McCain victory.

Packer’s essay, however, also depicted a Republican party so adrift that reform-minded policy prescriptions may act as only a temporary salve. “The fact that the least conservative, least divisive Republican in the 2008 race is the last one standing…shows how little life is left in the movement that Goldwater began, Nixon brought into power, Ronald Reagan gave mass appeal, Newt Gingrich radicalized, Tom DeLay criminalized, and Bush allowed to break into pieces,” Packer writes.

Packer’s piece garnered less-than-rave reviews from the four writers. (“I don’t think to speak in terms of obituaries really makes sense,” Levin says.) But they are not reticent to discuss the electoral reordering facing conservatives in the fall elections and beyond—and how its attendant malaise has afflicted the ranks of conservative thinkers. Douthat and Salam trace the genesis of their book to 2005 when they published an article in the Weekly Standard titled “The Party of Sam’s Club” that cast a pall on Republican triumphalism following the re-election of George W. Bush.

“We started talking about it shortly after the [2004] election, when everyone was talking about the permanent Republican majority and the vindication of Karl Rove,” Douthat says. “We were sort of looking at data and reading conservative writers and thought the GOP was in a lot of trouble.”

Reform-minded conservatives face a challenge of not only selling the Republican party on ideas that do not necessarily appeal to its traditional constituencies, but selling the broader electorate on a brand name and public figures that have only further eroded in the public eye since the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.

The proposals vary widely, but they generally converge upon concerns of reconciling American workers—and their families—to a globalized world. Levin has talked about replacing the “working class” moniker with the “parenting class.”

Levin’s recent essay on reform conservatism in the Weekly Standard presented a concise and focused strategy for McCain to persuade voters to give conservatism another shot. Where Douthat and Salam are conceptual and gauzy in their prescriptions, Levin offers a meaty “Theme for McCain’s Pudding.” Levin proposes an array of measures to steer the McCain camp toward an agenda of “change and reform,” including expanded school choice, an overhaul of struggling agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, tort reform, and a recasting of Medicare as a defined benefit program rather than a classic entitlement program.

Indications that McCain and his advisors have picked up on the Sam’s Club agenda are present, but few. Health care reform—which Levin calls “the preeminent domestic concern in this election year” and “the key to McCain’s reform agenda”—has emerged as an area for McCain to demonstrate a reformist streak, but appears an early victim of failed marketing.

The proposal, which would create a vast new program of tax credits for individuals to purchase their own health insurance, has already been branded by Obama as a Bush-era relic. McCain, Obama said, “wants to give you the failed Bush health-care policies for another four years.” McCain again mentioned health care issues in a June 3 speech reported by Politico to have been inspired by Levin’s Weekly Standard piece, but the speech was widely panned as stilted and ill-suited to McCain’s underwhelming stump presence.

Resistance in the Ranks

Even if Democrats weren’t defining the reformist agenda as warmed-over ideas, it still faces a counter-offensive within the conservative ranks. Congressional Republicans, in particular, appear convinced that their electoral failures are due to a lack of commitment to shrinking government rather than a lack of creativity in reinventing governance structures and the safety net.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, House Minority Leader John Boehner complained most bitterly about runaway government spending and congressional earmarks. Boehner also pointed to an earmark prohibition, Iraq war spending, an extension of President Bush’s tax cuts, and renewal of the president’s wiretapping powers as top issues on the Republican agenda. None of these would address the concerns, as defined by the four reformists, of low-to-middle class households.

Likewise, the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus that represents the most powerful faction of House Republicans, recently released a ten-point “action plan” for House Republicans that lists “the end of pork-barrel spending” and “limiting Washington spending” as its top two concerns.

The current landscape is emblematic of a conservatism that, by virtue of the popularity of Bush’s war on terror and Democrats’ lack of perspective on cultural issues, has remained relatively untouched by electoral trade winds on the economy.

In many ways, the crisis appears almost as a market correction—a puncturing of the storyline that has dominated Republican party politics since Richard Nixon managed to smash the New Deal coalition in 1968. Douthat and Salam note the Republicans’ upper-hand on cultural issues, but on the economy, they say Republicans are victims of their own instincts: “by confusing being pro-market with being pro-business, by failing to distinguish spending that fosters dependency and spending that fosters independence and upward mobility, and by shrinking from the admittedly difficult task of reforming the welfare state so that it serves the interest of the working class, rather than the affluent.”

The party’s reformation may also be unwanted by appreciable—and perhaps disproportionately powerful—ideological factions. This year, Grover Norquist published Leave Us Alone: Getting the Government’s Hands Off Our Money, Our Guns, Our Lives—an unreconstructed and unwavering apologia for the Gingrich-Delay Republican coalition of the 1990s of which Norquist was an architect.

The Norquist book predictably points to Reagan as a touchstone—Norquist has long championed Reagan, having chaired the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project and going so far as to advocate for Reagan’s placement on the $10 bill. Reagan’s victories in 1980 and 1984 have for years given succor to “revolutionary” conservatives—most prominently congressional Republicans swept to victory in 1994—and formed the basis for the same type of electoral coalition that Douthat and Salam argue Republicans should still seek. (The two contend that Reagan’s tax-cutting legacy, much more than “the small-government agenda of the party’s activists,” won him the “Reagan Democrat” voting bloc.)

The Parenting Class

But if Reagan looms as a transformational figure in conservative politics and still, remarkably and posthumously, its reigning intellectual giant, the Sam’s Club conservative worries that he looms too large. Ponnuru notes that Reagan’s challenges in domestic policy included a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent—a situation, Reagan believed, that required tax reform for the sake of a pro-growth agenda.

“What Reagan did is to apply conservative principles to the problems that faced him at the time,” Ponnuru says. “We don’t have a top tax rate of 70 percent, so maybe our approach should change as well.”

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Ponnuru criticized the Republican impulse to cut taxes with an eye toward Wall Street, but not Main Street. “They seek tax reforms that cut taxes on investment returns and thereby increase economic growth. What they ignore is that we overtax investments in children, too,” Ponnuru writes.

Ponnuru’s Sam’s Club compatriots all agree that his proposal for family-centered tax reform is the most fully realized of any of their policy ideas. Its hallmark, perhaps, is its scale: Ponnuru suggests replacing the standard deduction with a tax credit to offset income taxes and enlarging the child tax credit up to $5,000 from its current total of $1,000.

One major target of the proposal: middle-income families with children. Ponnuru has specifically pushed the tax proposal as “pro-family,” but also cites the human capital returns from investing in families. To supply-siders, who have dominated economic thinking in the Republican party for over two decades, Ponnuru points out the pragmatic benefits of hitching their fate to the Sam’s Club crowd: “Their ability to get those things is almost certainly improved if they are tied to a policy that many millions of American families will like,” Ponnuru writes.

The tax discussion forms a major component of the shared agenda of the four writers. Douthat and Salam mention wage subsidies in their book—a more direct form of economic intervention for low-wage earners than the earned-income tax credit, but one which they concede could cost tens of billions of dollars a year.

Salam explains that, when he wrote the 2005 Weekly Standard piece, he was “obsessed with wage subsidies” and that the proposal was a cornerstone of his collaboration with Douthat.

Grand New Party calls wage subsidies an “anti-entitlement,” but it’s certain that many conservative intellectuals would assail the idea not only for its potential to encourage dependency in those receiving subsidies but also for its annual expense. But Douthat and Salam are undeterred. To succeed, their “expanded self-improvement agenda” would have to provide tangible benefits for families—and that means some serious money on the table.

“One of the many things we’re trying to do is envision a sort of broad-based new conservative agenda,” Douthat explains, “that says what it means to be pro-family besides being against gay marriage.”

-Donald P. Yoest is a writer in Washington, D.C.

 

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