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January 30, 2007
Thoughts On The National Review Institute's Conservative Summit
This past weekend, my wife and I attended the National Review Institute's Conservative Summit at the J.W. Marriott in Washington, D.C. This was a fantastic event. Unfortunately, it is not annual. I believe the last Summit was held in 1996. Would that one were held every year.
The Summit offered a wealth of practical and philosophical insights from leading politicians, scholars, and policy analysts, from across the conservative political spectrum (although the "paleo" perspective was under-represented, not surprisingly). The Summit was organized around a stimulating mix of speeches, panel discussions, and debates. The quality of the speakers was consistently high; the choice of topics could not have been more timely; and the conference was run in a crisp and professional manner. (See here for the final agenda.)
Here are the highlights of the conference (there were many!), along with some of my own reactions and observations:
The Summit kicked off on Friday night with a reception honoring former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, who made a few, mostly humorous, remarks. Ambassador Bolton was wildly popular among the Summit attendees. Bolton's popularity obviously stems from his reputation as a no-nonsense, America-first kind of guy, who puts little stock in the ability of transnational organizations, in particular the U.N. and the E.U., to address the world's most serious problems, let alone protect the interests of the United States. Even if the nation's elites disapprove of such "unilateralist" attitudes, more and more Americans are coming to the same conclusion. Public opinion polls show that attitudes towards the United Nations have soured since the 1990s.
The reception was followed by a "night owl" panel session featuring Kate O'Beirne, Mona Charen, Laura Ingraham, Kathryn Jean Lopez (the editor of National Review Online, who moderated the session), and Michelle Malkin. It was an interesting and free-wheeling session, but I think Ingraham and Charen made the most astute points. Ingraham emphasized that, to be successful, the Republican Party "must connect with the average American worker." I think her conception of politics as, in essence, a battle for the hearts and minds of the American worker is far superior to the usual Republican emphasis on the American consumer, which focuses more on what people are able to do with their money than on how they earn their money. While each person in this country wears the hats of both worker and consumer, the two concepts are not identical. Most Americans think of themselves, indeed define themselves, in terms of where they work and how they earn a living, not where they shop and what they buy. Similarly, most Americans are more concerned about higher wages than lower prices, about greater job security than greater consumption. This is why reports of massive layoffs from brand name companies create so much public anxiety. The upshot is that extolling the consumer cornucopia that exists in this country is less compelling politically than promoting policies that redound to the benefit of the average worker. I think there is deep significance, psychological and political, to the paradigm shift urged by Ingraham, which Republicans and conservatives would be wise to contemplate. On a related note, Mona Charen argued that the traditional Republican emphasis on tax cuts is losing its broad-based appeal, paradoxically, because most Americans no longer pay much, if any, federal income taxes. Consequently, while further tax cuts may have a positive macroeconomic impact, they increasingly will be seen as benefiting the well-off and the rich (i.e., those who still pay income taxes). Republicans can rail all they want against the politics of "class warfare," but Charen is right that Republicans are making a mistake if they believe that tax cuts are as politically salient today as they were in 1980.
Saturday began with what I consider the highlight of the entire conference: Newt Gingrich. I have never been a particularly strong admirer of Gingrich, but I am now. His speech was smart, articulate, passionate, and compelling. Almost every line, every paragraph was worth quoting (I didn't take very good notes of Gingrich's speech, however, because I wanted to listen to what he had to say). Like most of the speakers at the Summit, Gingrich does not believe that "conservatism" lost in last year's elections. Rather, he believes the Republican Party lost its way. As he put it, "Republicanism did not make conservatism a majority; conservatism made Republicanism a majority." When the Republican Party moved away from its conservative foundations, it floundered politically. The task is rebuilding the conservative consensus, which Gingrich sees as requiring "a genuine wave of reform [that] has to be across the nation" -- meaning at all levels of government (as Gingrich noted, there are 500,000+ elected officials in this country) -- not just "in 2 or 3 presidential campaigns." Gingrich also was quite contemptuous of what he called the "political consultant culture" of the Republican Party, which he sees as not only antithetical to conservatism, but politically ineffectual. Although Gingrich stuck to his guns about not announcing his presidential intentions until the fall, his speech clearly was a "campaign speech" -- and it was a darn good one. Among the issues Gingrich touched upon was immigration, which I consider the most important domestic issue. Although he did not address the issue in any detail, it sounds like Gingrich will be taking an "enforcement-first" stance, which could boost his candidacy enormously.
The first panel session of the Summit, appropriately, was on the topic "Is Small Government a Big Joke?" The speakers were Professor Marvin Olasky, the intellectual father of compassionate conservatism; former Congressman Pat Toomey, who now heads the Club for Growth; and Congressman Paul Ryan. Toomey and Ryan were strong advocates for limiting the size of the federal government. As Toomey put it, echoing Ronald Reagan, "almost all bad things in the United States come from big government." It's too bad that Toomey lost his bid to unseat Senator Arlen Specter in 2004, not just because Specter is a RINO, but because Toomey clearly has what it takes to be a strong national leader. However, I confess I am not as confident as Toomey and Ryan in the political effectiveness of the "limited government" message. While public opinion polls show that most Americans like the idea of limited government, they like even better all of the goods and services that government provides. On this point, I think Professor Olasky has important insights to offer Republicans, insights which have been lost in the disdain so many of us feel for the "compassionate conservatism" embodied by President Bush's domestic agenda. Significantly, Olasky counsels that Republicans approach the implementation of their limited government agenda in a pragmatic, incremental manner -- the same way pro-life forces have been trying to chip away at the abortion culture in this country, rather than just focusing on overturning Roe v. Wade. Olasky emphasizes a "bottom-up" approach to social policy, intended to increase the scope of local and individual control. Contrary to a common misconception (which I shared), he does not endorse enlarging the welfare-regulatory state as a political strategy for enhancing the Republican Party's political fortunes. If Olasky had named his strategy "pragmatic conservatism," I think it would be better received by the Republican rank-and-file.
The next session was on the role of religious conservatives in the Republican Party, and featured a debate between Ralph Reed and Ryan Sager (the author of The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party). The debate mostly was over gay marriage. Sager argued that Republicans "do not want to be on the losing side of the most important civil rights issue of our time, like they were in the 1960s on race." A ridiculous statement, for so many reasons. Reed very persuasively defended the position that "marriage" is an institution between a man and a woman. I have never heard Reed speak in person. I was very impressed by his eloquence, demeanor, and breadth of knowledge. He completely out-classed Sager.
The next panel was on foreign policy. The speakers were John O'Sullivan, Cliff May, and David Rivkin. It was an excellent panel, but O'Sullivan stood out. O'Sullivan argued that the United States is facing three major international challenges: (1) Islamic terrorism, (2) a power grab by transnational organizations (to which O'Sullivan gave the delightful appellation "transies"), and (3) the rise of China and India, and the decline of Russia, as world powers. On the war against terrorism, O'Sullivan was both optimistic and pessimistic. He believes that the United States and its allies can prevail against the forces of Muslim extremism, but that it will take time. In particular, he thinks that Iraq could be stabilized, if we were prepared to stay there for 10+ years. But we aren't. Which brings up O'Sullivan's grim observation that "there is a will to lose in the United States today." More generally, America suffers from "cultural masochism," which O'Sullivan warned hampers our ability to deal with all three international challenges. O'Sullivan also took issue with the econophiles and free traders (many of whom are on the Republican side of the aisle), by emphasizing that American power and influence in the world ultimately depends on our willingness to fight, not just on our economic strength. Hear, hear!
The lunch speaker on Saturday was Jeb Bush. Jeb's presentation was polished and articulate, yet also natural and authentic. He spoke about limited government, about the need to "cut taxes whenever you can," and about giving the President a line-item veto like he had as governor. I know that Jeb is widely popular among Republicans, but like President Bush he is firmly pro-immigration, and believes that all the talk about securing the border and stopping illegal immigration is "sending the wrong message" to Hispanics in this country. Indeed, he became noticeably testy when asked about immigration during the question and answer session. During the Q&A, I asked him how he would define American citizenship, and all he could say was obeying the law, knowing a little history (which he did not specify), and working hard to make a better life for yourself and your family. Hardly Teddy Roosevelt. I, for one, do not lament that Jeb is not running for President.
After lunch, there was an unmemorable session with Republican Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor. Boehner was surprisingly casual, glib, and unimpressive. In my opinion, he is a walking argument for term limits, which, not surprisingly, he said he opposes (despite signing the Contract With America in 1994).
This was followed by a panel session on social issues. Princeton Professor Robert P. George gave a lengthy speech that focused on the importance of healthy, traditional families to limited government and ordered liberty. It was an intellectual tour de force, but rather dry and unengaging. He was followed by Maggie Gallagher, who spoke about the political consequences of accepting gay marriage. In particular, she pointed out that if gay marriage becomes recognized by the law, then any opposition to gay marriage will become against the law. For example, institutions like the Roman Catholic Church will be forced out of the adoption business because they are unwilling to place children into same-sex homes, as already has happened in Massachusetts and Great Britain. More broadly, Gallagher noted that if society accepts the analogy between homosexuality and race (as drawn, e.g., by Sager), then we should expect the same panoply of laws concerning race to be enacted concerning homosexuality. It is a very good point, which "libertarian" and "conservative" supporters of gay marriage should bear in mind.
The next panel was on the Iraq War, and featured a heated debate between Lawrence Korb and Bill Kristol. The Iraq War arguments have been hashed to death, so I won't recount them here. But it was quite telling that Kristol, despite his strong support for the President's policy, could only say that the proposed "surge" has "a decent chance for success," that we have to "take a shot at victory," and that we need to give General Petraeus "a chance to win." In my view, such qualified language reveals either a lack of clarity about what "victory" and "success" means in this context (and Kristol never proposed any operational definitions of these terms), or an implicit recognition that the methods we are employing to achieve this goal (in terms of manpower, materiel, and tactics) are not sufficient. My own view is that our engagement in Iraq suffers from both of these weaknesses.
The last panel on Saturday was titled "Trumping the Race Card." The speakers were Ward Connerly, former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele, and Manhattan Institute scholar Abigail Thernstrom. This was an excellent panel. Thernstrom sharply criticized the "racial agitators and their allies, especially the Congressional Black Caucus." And she blamed "terrified Republicans" for re-enacting the "emergency provisions" of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which are responsible for the radicalized, racially-gerrymandered districts from which most of the Congressional Black Caucus hails. Steele spoke movingly about "being a student of Ronald Reagan and an adherent to the party of Lincoln." He argued that Republicans need to go into the black community and talk about empowerment, opportunity, and ownership. While Steele was able to attract over 30 percent of the black vote in his bid for Senate in 2006, query whether a white candidate could enjoy similar success with the same message. Connerly then spoke about his efforts to eliminate affirmative action, which he said "is the umbilical cord that connects black people to the view that they need government to take care of them." Connerly argued that the diversity rationale, which is the principal basis for affirmative action today, "is totally antithetical to everything contained in the Declaration of Independence." He said that he and his colleagues are planning a "Super Tuesday for Equality" in 2008, when they will propose their anti-affirmative action initiatives in five states simultaneously. He is confident they will win all five. Connerly is truly a great American, and one of the most important political figures of our time.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the "keynote" speaker at dinner on Saturday. He was introduced by Mark Steyn, who had the entire audience (approximately 800 attendees) laughing hysterically. This was one of the best moments of the Summit. Steyn is wonderfully charming, witty, and engaging in person. One of the gems of the conservative world. How was Romney? I thought he was just OK. In my opinion, he made too much of his background in private industry, which emphasized his business acumen but also highlighted his privileged background. He offered a reasonably persuasive account of his "flip-flop" from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, which he claimed was triggered by the embryonic stem cell issue which caused him to appreciate that human life begins at conception (duh!). He made a very good point that there should be tax advantages for all forms of savings, not just IRAs and 401ks and the like. He made a reasonable point, in defense of his "universal coverage" health care plan in Massachusetts, that every citizen has a "responsibility" to obtain medical insurance. However, I don't think he sufficiently addressed the political and economic problems that surround trying to define, let alone mandate, what such a responsibility entails in practice. Ultimately, I suspect Romney, if elected President, would acquiesce in the further federalization and bureaucratization of the nation's health care industry, which I strongly oppose. He also said very little in his speech about immigration, which suggests to me that he supports the amnesty/guest worker plan proposed by President Bush. This is another position I strongly oppose. Romney deserves credit for acknowledging that our conflict with militant Islam represents "a large-scale, ideological struggle." But in talking about what he would do about this problem (the specifics of which were unmemorable), he did not strike me as a convincing "war time leader." Overall, my impression of Romney is that he is a solid politician, but I have serious reservations about his policies.
Saturday's dinner was followed by another "night owl" session with Mark Steyn, Rob Long (a Hollywood writer and humorist for National Review), and Jonah Goldberg. Listening to Steyn riff on various topics high and low was worth the price of admission. Long also had some clever and funny things to say. I don't understand the appeal of Jonah Goldberg.
Sunday began with a heated debate on immigration policy between Tamar Jacoby, who supports the President's amnesty/guest worker plan, and Mark Krikorian, who falls into the "restrictionist" camp. Frankly, this debate was a little disappointing. Not because of Jacoby, who came across as a wealthy, pampered New Yorker who likes having her nails done by Koreans and her lawn mowed by Mexicans. I expected her to say stupid things, and she didn't disappoint (e.g., "Hispanics are natural Republican voters"; "immigration is keeping the Social Security fund afloat"; we need immigrants because Americans are no longer "dropping out of high school to take manual labor jobs"; and so on). But Krikorian, who supports an "attrition through enforcement" strategy and whose columns on immigration are indispensable, did not have as good a command of the numbers and arguments as I expected. As a fellow restrictionist, I was hoping he would offer a more compelling defense of our side of the debate.
We then heard from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who that day announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee. Why? Good question. Huckabee needs to hire better advisors, because when he began his speech with that very question, his answer was "I am still trying to figure that out myself right now." This was meant to be humorous, but it revealed the irrelevance of his candidacy. Although Huckabee received a loud round of applause when he endorsed a flat tax, the rest of his speech was crisis-this and crisis-that, which sounded like he was running for the Democratic nomination. Huckabee seems like a very nice and capable man, but at the Summit he looked foolish and out of his depth.
The next session was a debate between former CIA Director James Woolsey and the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor over what the federal government should be doing to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. This was another nasty debate. Woolsey and Taylor had palpable disdain for each other's position (Taylor endorsing a free market approach; Woolsey supporting an interventionist approach). In my opinion, Taylor has the stronger position and was the stronger debater.
The last session of the conference was on domestic policy, with Ramesh Ponnuru, Charles Kesler (of the Claremont Institute), and Charles Murray. It was one of the best. Ponnuru offered a comprehensive set of policy prescriptions, but two points stood out. First, he argued that conservatives should not minimize the anxiety that most Americans feel over the health care system. I think he is correct to identify health care as a major focal point of domestic politics (along with immigration). He also argued that Republicans need to re-think how to apply conservative principles to domestic policy issues in ways that attract independent voters, which is where the political battle is being fought. Another good point, but one that raises the question of how to balance the need to "bring out the base" with the need to appeal to independents. Kesler argued that "entitlements are at the center of our politics like never before" and that this presents a fundamental challenge to the entire conservative project. From a philosophical perspective, he is right. Unfortunately, he did not have much to say in the form of practical political suggestions for reversing this trend. Indeed, Kesler sharply criticized "compassionate conservatism," which, while hardly perfect (and subject to misinterpretation), at least offers a strategy for moving away from the welfare-regulatory state. I suspect that purists like Kesler would rather throw their hands up and say "I told you so," than endorse half-measures that offer the prospect of, at best, incremental improvement. But, in my opinion, Republicans and conservatives are fooling themselves if they think any other kind of improvement is possible on the domestic front. Charles Murray was the last speaker. He gave a stirring presentation that urged Republicans to return to the policies and perspectives that led to such great successes in 1980 and 1994. A staunch libertarian, Murray argued that "the province of government is inherently limited," that "government cannot administer complex human needs," and that "wide swaths of government at all levels could be done away with and it wouldn't make one bit of difference in our lives." I think he is right. Unfortunately, I do not think he is right that the "well spring" of support in this country for such a starkly anti-government perspective is "still as wide and deep as in 1980 and 1994." The country has changed in the last 25 years, demographically, ideologically, economically, and socially, and in ways that lead to greater dependence on and support for big government. That's why government keeps growing. Unless we implement policies, both in the public and private realms, that counteract and reverse these changes, the limited government vision at the heart of American conservatism will continue to grow dimmer and dimmer.
The Summit concluded with a luncheon address by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. Snow was introduced by Larry Kudlow, who offered his typical, and typically wonderful, paean to capitalism and the American economy ("the greatest story never told"). Kudlow is an excellent public speaker, with an unparalleled ability to describe the philosophical and practical virtues of the free market. His speech was a real treat. I cannot say the same about Tony Snow. Putting aside the fact that he speaks for the Bush Administration and has to defend many policies I do not agree with, I found him to be glib and uncompelling. But in all fairness, he received several rounds of enthusiastic applause, and other attendees told me they really enjoyed his speech. Probably if I were more sympathetic to the substantive points he was making, I would have found Snow's presentation more persuasive.
The overall message I came away with from the Summit was, have faith in the correctness of the conservative philosophy, but think creatively and pragmatically about how to implement that vision in 21st Century America. Sounds like Newt, right? I am going to be giving him a much closer look now than I would have before.