Conservative Intellectuals Fear the GOP Isn't Connecting

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on March 6 Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The Republican Party wants to be known as the Party of Ideas, not the Party of No. But some of conservatism’s most prominent thinkers believe the GOP is still in reaction mode.

That was clear yesterday at a Manhattan Institute panel that featured New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks as moderator; Avik Roy, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who advised presidential candidate Mitt Romney on health care in 2012; Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist; Reihan Salam, leader writer for National Review’s domestic policy blog, the Agenda; Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs; and Josh Barro, a national correspondent for the New York Times.

Most of the 90-minute discussion was occupied by ruing the Republican Party’s inability to connect with people on economic issues important to them, including long-term unemployment and the decoupling of wage growth from productivity. A few policy ideas emerged, including wage subsidies and “public paternalism,” but it wasn’t clear that they were genuinely conservative. “Both parties are intellectually exhausted,” Levin said early on. No one disagreed.

Since they weren’t running for office, the panelists could afford to say things you won’t hear from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Roy said that the Democratic Party “has a more legitimate claim of being a national party” in terms of its regional and ethnic diversity. Salam said, “our mental model of capitalism is wrong.” Levin said, “capitalism requires a kind of citizen that it doesn’t produce.” McArdle said that the GOP formula that worked well in the past—deregulation and tax-cutting—doesn’t answer today’s problems. Barro topped her, noting that judging from today’s low interest rates, the bond market is much calmer about federal budget deficits than Republicans are. “A conservative is somebody who thinks every market is efficient except the Treasury bond market,” he said.

The Romney campaign in 2012 deliberately avoided an idea-based campaign, fearing that any specifics could end up being used against the Republicans at the polls, Levin said. “That just has to change,” he added. On the same note, Roy said the Republicans need a conservative version of President Lyndon Johnson, who modernized the Democratic Party in the 1960s through sheer force of will, overcoming the opposition of old-fashioned Southern Democrats to make Democrats the party of civil rights.

As for new ideas, McArdle—disclosure: a distant Bloomberg colleague—pushed a favorite of hers: payroll tax rebates for the long-term unemployed. The idea is to make them cheaper for employers to hire, increasing their chances of getting a job. Barro questioned whether the tax rebate would just end up in employers’ pockets by bringing more people into the labor market and driving wages down. McArdle responded that it would work if it were clearly targeted at just the long-term unemployed.

In any case, payroll tax rebates aren’t likely to pass muster with conservatives who oppose all spending hikes, since the hit to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds from cutting the payroll tax would have to be made up with general revenue.

The one other new idea that got talked about, after Brooks brought it up, was government-funded coaching of mothers and fathers on their parenting skills. Salam defended it as an example of what he called “public paternalism.” That isn’t likely to sit well with the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Salam said that’s OK: “Conservatives need to feel more comfortable that they’re not libertarians.” An interesting concept—but not obviously a conservative one.

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