Sam Tanenhaus is the very talented editor emeritus of the New York Times Book Review and now a senior writer for the paper, as well as the author of a widely acclaimed biography of Whitaker Chambers and 2009’s The Death of Conservatism.
Conservatism not only did not die but roared back into shared power with Barack Obama in 2010, nearly won back the White House while holding the House in 2012, and is poised for another big day in November, so perhaps Tanenhaus felt a need to explain away his failed prophecy, or at least to have an answer for why the next Reagan arrives whenever he (or she) does after burying the movement that births them.
For whatever reason Tanenhaus produced a lengthy piece for yesterday’s New York Times Magazine that asked in the title “Can the GOP Be A Party of Ideas?” and which proceeded to profile a great number of rising bright lights within conservative intellectual circles.
Tanenhaus has thus provided the short guide to why his 2009 book was so very wrong: The GOP got better about ideas.
Good theory, that. Except it isn’t true. Which I why I asked Tanenhaus to join me on Thursday’s show as he did, and the always gracious lefty has a spirited conversation with me about his article, which had been available online since mid-week.
After chiding Tanenhaus just a bit for leaving out the three of the biggest lights in the Right’s intellectual sky — Arthur Brooks, Lanhee Chen and Tevi Troy — I get down to the three biggest problem I and I suspect other conservatives will have with the Tanenhaus view of things.
First, it has never been a problem about having great ideas, but of being saddled with the worst party communications shop in all of modern times, an infrastructure that does not know how to transmit those ideas. To be a “leader” of the GOP one should be making frequent extended appearances on the shows of talk radio’s “Big 12” — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Dennis Miller, Larry O’Connor and yours truly — in order to push out these ideas and demand for them attention and broader hearings.
Instead the House GOP leadership works overtime to avoid communicating with the party’s base throughout talk radio — Speaker John Boehner, soon-to-depart Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Cantor’s replacement, Kevin McCarthy — simply refuse to do the job of cheerleader for the cadre of brilliant thinkers led by Yuval Levin that Tanenhaus identified. Until the “leadership” embraces and extolls their work, they will toil on largely unknown and unnoticed. It was Jack Kemp who made Arthur Laffer a force, but no one in the Congress works much at doing that for Yuval Levin or any of the other big brains.
Second, the piece did not pay much attention to the idea factories outside of Washington, including within the Tea Party precincts, such as Arizona’s the Goldwater Institute, Colorado’s Centennial and Independence institutes, Florida’s James Madison Institute, Michigan’s the Acton Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
There are many others. The Manhattan-Beltway media elite don’t get out much so they know correspondingly little other than “big-government” reform and its conservative critics. But much of the best ideas on governing from the right are in the states, and being implemented there by reform governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, Ohio’s John Kasich and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.
Finally, Tanenhaus skipped over the biggest crisis on the intellectual right: The lack of a new generation of defense intellectuals. While some such as Max Boot at the Council of Foreign Relations, Fred Kagan of AEI and Robert C. O’Brien, my colleague at the law firm Arent Fox, are deeply immersed in the crises engulfing the planet, they are few, in number, and very few of the GOP political leadership with the exception of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., seem to be paying any attention at all to the massive repair job President Obama is leaving behind him at the Pentagon and around the globe.
So read my interview with Tanenhaus and the article that sparked it. Things are both much better and much worse than presented there, but it is perhaps a kick in the rear of the GOP House leadership to begin the job of pretending to be a party that cares about ideas again.
Column originally posted on WashingtonExaminer.com