Sam Tanenhaus On Whether The GOP Can Be A “Party Of Ideas”
HH: This hour, I’m beginning with an old guest on the program. San Tanenhaus was for many years the editor of the New York Times Book Review. He is the author of the 2009 bestseller, The Death Of Conservatism. That’s when he was last on the program with me. And two days ago, he had an amazing article appear on the New York Times website, “Can The GOP Be A Party Of Ideas?” And I immediately reached out through Danielle to see if we couldn’t get Sam, and he’s able to join us today. Sam, how are you? Welcome back, good to talk to you, and a happy 4th of July early to you.
ST: Same to you, Hugh, good to be back with you.
HH: Great to talk to you. Now I’ve got to say, every time I hear you talk, I used to run every Saturday morning and listen to your podcast. So it’s always, I’m transported to Saturday morning. It’s so weird. Do you have many people tell you that?
ST: You know, we did have a lot of fans for that program, and I’m glad that my successor, Pamela Paul, is still doing it.
HH: Yeah, you just have such a unique voice, though. Okay, I have psychoanalyzed you, Sam. Do you want to hear what my psychoanalysis is?
ST: Please. You’ll save me a lot of money.
HH: All right, you wrote the book, The Death Of Conservatism, in 2009. It not only did not die, it came surging back in 2010. Then it almost won the presidency in 2012 and held the House, and now it’s going to clobber the left in 2014. And so you had to go figure out how could they possibly not be dead. And so you went and you found all of our smart guys, “Can The GOP Be A Party Of Ideas?,” and then now you can tell yourself why it didn’t die and why it’s been resurrected.
ST: You know what? All along, when that book came out, I probably said it to you when we talked, we had a nice, long conversation about it, people would say well, is conservatism really dead? And I would say well, I hope not. And these guys are so smart, they’re not all guys, by the way, for those of you who are keeping score. There’s a really smart woman named April Ponnuru, who was an organizer of this group, who’s in my story, which will be in the Sunday Times magazine this weekend. And a woman I didn’t get to include the piece, a really great policy writer named Nicole Gelinas, who’s here in New York. I really concentrated on the Washington group, and they are smart, they are serious, and they are so policy-driven, you sort of have to do a little IQ brush up before you talk to them. I don’t think I’d pass the test, so I said okay, here they are, and you decide what you think of them. They’re really smart. I’m sure you’ve talked to some of them, right?
HH: Almost every one of them.
HH: April has not been on the show, but Yuval has been here quite a lot, and Ramesh has been here quite a lot.
HH: But I must say, the smartest, young reform con as they’re called is Lanhee Chen. I think he’s the smartest guy in America. And then there are some others like, I mean, Arthur Brooks is not mentioned in your piece, and he’s basically the godfather of them all, or Tevi Troy, or young Ryan Adams. It’s like you barely found our conservative smart guys and gals.
ST: Well, you know, it’s funny, I talked to Tevi, because you probably know he was Yuval’s boss in the White House.
ST: What I wanted to do was look at the group that was involved in this particular project that I describe in the story called Room To Grow, which is an ambitious policy manifesto that draws on ideas these people have been working on for a long time, you know, really since 2009, some of them have been writing about this stuff, and nobody was really much interested in it, including the Republican Party. There was not a whole lot of interest in this very policy-driven stuff. What do we do about poverty in the city? What do we do about poverty in the suburbs? How do we get people in the cities who need jobs out to the suburbs where they can find jobs? What do we do about health care? What do we do about energy? What do we do about college loan debt and all of this? And this group was kind of quietly doing the work. And what happened was they built up this body of ideas, and as you know, Yuval in particular, and Ramesh, too, are not only intellectuals, which of course they are, and superb writers and all that, they also know how Washington works. And what they were doing was building, let’s call it a pipeline, word of the moment, to actual legislators. So to me, Hugh, I don’t know if it was for you, what I liked about reporting this story, I tell everybody this is my good news story, is that we have this very stale narrative being promulgated especially in the Beltway, but even, gosh help us, in the New York Times where I work, that everything within the Republican Party is an either/or between the Tea Party on one side, and the establishment on the other. And this group, and you’re right about Arthur Brooks being kind of godfather to them. I went to look at the godsons, as it were, and goddaughters, is to say no, actually, the people who surged into power, as you said, the Mike Lees, the Marco Rubios, the Paul Ryans, they’re actually the ones hungriest for the new ideas. They actually come out of the heart of the country. So instead of fighting the old ideological partisan battle, let’s see if we can win the war of idea. And it was so funny, because the New Republic, a liberal magazine I’ve written for, as you know, after this Room To Grow book came out, that okay, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, where are your ideas?
HH: Well, and that’s it.
ST: And that’s when it gets interesting.
HH: I want people to know that Sam’s article, which you can now get at the New York Times website, it’ll be in the magazine on Sunday, but if you go and type in Sam Tanenhaus and the New York Times’ website, you’ll come up with “Can The GOP Be A Party Of Ideas?” My first question to you was as compared to what. I mean, do you think the Democrats are a volcano of ideas right now? Their big three got tried, their big three, of course, were the stimulus, Dodd-Frank and Obamacare. And they’re all three a disaster. It’s like the triple play of disasters, Sam. And so do they have a bench anywhere remotely as talented as the bench that you describe in part on the Republican side?
ST: Well, I would say two things there. Every reformercon I talked to said Obama gets huge credit for forcing the issue that Republicans in particular would not deal with. Yuval was very direct about this. For 25 years, Republicans would not address health care. They wouldn’t address the question of universal coverage. Now Yuval and Company think they can do better, but it had to be brought forward. They give him points for that. Ramesh even said to me look, people would give up their seats for that. That is really admirable. So we’ll set aside Obama, but the bigger question, do the Democrats have ideas? Somebody who’s name I can’t mention, very prominent journalist in New York, sent me a note and she said the closest reader of this article is going to be Hillary Clinton, because we’re hearing a lot about Hillary Clinton. We’re hearing about her money, about her career, about her memoir, about her friends, about her network. I’m not hearing a lot of what exactly she would do as president.
HH: Well said.
ST: So yes…
HH: Your description, the only line, I marked out two things to talk to you about specifically. The only line I objected to, and I think it was partially tongue-in-cheek, is your description of old GOP doctrine as being “orgiastic tax cutting, the slashing of government programs, and the championing of Wall Street.” A touch unfair, Sam?
ST: You know, it’s a little bit a exaggeration, but you know who I got it from, Hugh? I got it from those guys.
ST: You know, Ramesh, when I was having lunch, this is not in the story, but because it was an on the record interview, I can tell you. So having lunch at the Palm, you know, in Washington, Dupont Circle, nice place with Ramesh and Michael Strain, this young economist is a fount of smart ideas that’s in this story. And so I said okay, what’s going on here, what are you all doing? And they said you know, we can’t do Reaganism anymore, because you can’t make the case that reducing taxes is the answer, because the marginal tax rate, the top rate is not 70% where it was in 1981 when he took office, okay? So you have to look at where the big body of the country is. Then Ramesh said, he said the other thing is, you know, back in the day, you know, a couple of years ago, a lot of people on the right were saying you know, we have to be careful with the economy because inflation’s going to rise, and inflation never rose. And I turned to these guys, Ramesh and Michael Strain, and I said who invited Paul Krugman?
ST: So I’m getting it from these guys.
HH: All right, well, okay…
ST: All right, now listen, but you know, too, Hugh, how politics works. This is a new generation. We are looking at, I’m really big on generations, we are looking at very late Gen X and older millennial types. This is a new one. They don’t even really remember Reagan. Reagan is, to them, as like Franklin Roosevelt or Theodore Roosevelt was to you and me.
HH: Well, this is part of the problem, by the way. You have no defense intellectuals in here. And part of the Reagan revolution of which I was on of them then, because when I was in the Reagan revolution, I was younger than these guys are now. And part of that was the defensenicks came in, and they wanted the 600 ship Navy, and they wanted to spend Star Wars, and they wanted all of the different innovations that spent the Soviet Union into the ground. No one in your article, which is fairly broadly and well-comprehensively reported, is a defensenick, and that’s a problem…
HH: Pete Wehner may be a little bit, but I mean, not really.
ST: No, if you look at, I mean, have you had a chance to look at Room To Grow, the e-book that came out?
HH: Oh, yeah, I’ve got it right here.
ST: Yeah, there’s not a word about it?
HH: Not a word about defense. Absolutely.
ST: There’s not a word about defense, not a word about immigration.
HH: And Arthur Brooks cares about this. He knows about this. And I think Arthur is the most influential figure on the right, right now, bar none, and he cares about Defense. But he also knows the rift in the party doesn’t allow it to be discussed very easily.
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HH: I’m just happy that the people he talks about, and then I add in Lanhee Chen, Stephen Hayes and Michael Warren and John McCormack and Congressman Ryan, Pompeo, DeSantis, Cotton, Labrador, Hensarling, you know, I’ve got a whole long list of people, and the Democrats are stuck with Jon Chait and Ezra Klein. And they’re nice guys, don’t get me wrong, but they’re never going to change the world with what they think. And Sam, here’s the mickey you got slipped. John Murray, and I’m glad you found him, because I actually think John Murray is at the heart of the problem, which is he thinks we have an idea problem, not a communication problem. In fact, you quote him as saying there’s a difference between how an academic and policy wonk approaches the discussion, and how a political communication person does it. I think the conservatives are about a million years behind the left on communicating. I think they’re terrible at this. Even the YG network, named as it is after young gun, even their horrible book, the national interest which you accurately described as maybe the least aesthetically-pleasing publication in America, they don’t use Twitter, they do not use new media. That’s where we lose. We got the smart guys and gals, but my God, Media Matters, Joshua Micah Marshall, Kos, they run rungs around the right when it comes to connecting.
ST: Well, you know, it’s a very interesting point, and Yuval, who does, as you say, it’s kind of a forbidding journal, the National Affairs, is you know, very much kind of an old-fashioned guy. And you know, let’s face it, we’re having this conversation, a problem conservatives have had for a long time, Bill Buckley brilliantly broke the mold, was the young fogie.
ST: And you don’t want to do that. You’ve got to be kind of a young hipster. And I think that can happen. I think also the communication thing, see, there, I think John Murray is getting it right, because he’s saying okay, we have very smart policy people here. How do we translate the policy into arguments people will understand. And you know, politics is as much about arguments as it is about ideas.
HH: Sure, it is. But if you look at Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy, and these guys have, not one of them has been on this show in five years. Eric Cantor would never come on, Kevin McCarthy has never been on, the Speaker won’t show up. They refuse to do media. They refuse to talk about ideas. They are armed with ideas, and their staff won’t let them near a conversation that isn’t highly structured and completely programmed.
ST: Is that true? I did not know that.
HH: That’s absolutely true. Oh, it’s absolutely…you go find John Murray and ask him the last time his boss appeared on a nationally-syndicated talk radio show. And yeah, you’ll get your lumps with Laura Ingraham. You won’t with me. I stay very civil. And Mark Levin, who is probably, you know, some of the guys you did not find, the Tea Party intellectuals like Levin and Mark Meckler and the folks who are out there pushing for a states rights convention and The Liberty Amendments and things like that, they really like to mix it up. It’s not personal, but our leadership, they won’t engage in the war of ideas at all. It’s sort of like what you said about Hillary. What is she going to talk about? Well, what are our people…luckily, Rubio is willing to do that. And you mentioned him at the end.
ST: Yeah, Rubio comes, I’ll tell you an interesting thing about Marco Rubio that really struck me. I’m not somebody who’s interviewed a ton of politicians, because as you know, I write about the intellectuals and the authors and all of this. But I did go to his office. And when I met with his communications person, I said well, you know, who are some staff people I might talk to about the ideas? And this happened also when I interviewed Rubio the second time on the phone in June, as you say, at the end of the story. He said no, if you want to talk about the policy, you’ll have to talk to Marco himself. And I almost fell out of my chair. And you see Marco Rubio quoted verbatim there. This is like a guy who really knows politics and policy. Has he been on your program?
HH: Oh, very often. In fact, if I broadcast from Washington, I’m at the Heritage Foundation. He’ll walk over and sit down in the studio. I’m broadcasting from Florida next week. He wants to drop in on the studio. And when he’s in California, he comes to the studio. He is well prepared, speaks without notes, knows this. So does Rand Paul, by the way.
ST: Yeah, whom I’ve also written about. Yeah, both of those guys are really, really smart.
HH: Ted Cruz…
HH: You bet.
ST: Ted Cruz, I have not interviewed, thought Jake Silverstein, our new editor at the Sunday Times Magazine, has, because he used to edit the Texas Monthly. And he said he did a lot with Ted Cruz. And you know, there’s this great New Yorker piece on him by Jeffrey Toobin. I had no idea how brilliant Cruz is.
HH: Oh, yeah. You don’t win nine Supreme Court cases, because you’re lucky. And so there are a lot of guys who are capable, but not in the House. In the House, there’s only Paul Ryan, and then there are these young guys like Pompeo, DeSantis, Cotton, Labrador, and they’re shut off. The leadership, man, they hate to talk about this stuff. That’s why I thought, I thought that John gave you a mickey and was sending you in a, Murray was sending you off away from…the reason Eric Cantor lost was not because of his ideas. His ideas are crucially important. And he was not a Wall Street guy, though he raised a lot of money. He didn’t communicate with anybody.
ST: Yeah, well, you know, we have that little bit at the beginning of the piece, you know, where he talks at AEI. And it just doesn’t work. In fact, McConnell sounds better than he did when you look at the transcript. Yes, I agree, especially about Rubio. One of my colleagues here at the paper, Trip Gabriel, early on, did a long story with Jim Rutenberg, our colleague here at the paper. And Trip had been writing about Rand Paul during, while in Kentucky, and he said Rubio is the one who’s really going to impress you. And when I went to his office, the first thing he did was he disappeared, he pulled out his iPad, and he said okay, you’re writing for the Sunday Times Magazine, how come I can never find that thing on my app, which is true. You can’t.
ST: And then he goes into the policy. And he makes some pretty bold statements in this story we’re talking about.
HH: Yes, he does.
ST: And the New Republic already did an entire article on one line, one line that Rubio said. This could be a coming out for him. He wanted to participate. He was interested. He brought the Room For Growth people to his office to go over the policy. When I called him, I said what do you think of the book? And he said well, I’ve already read all this stuff in all the magazines they write.
HH: Yeah, now here’s my question, though.
ST: But then he gives the speech and brought them in to talk about it.
HH: You’ve got a problem, though, with their product, and it’s this. I had a young reporter on from the Huffington Post, Zach Carter, this week. The interview’s posted at Hughhewitt.com. I encourage you to read it. Zach Carter is their senior political economy reporter. He did not know the following things. He didn’t know who Alger Hiss was, he didn’t know that Clinton had bombed Iraq in 1998, he didn’t know who AQ Khan was, he’d never read The Looming Tower, he didn’t know that Qaddafi had weapons of mass destruction. He’s the senior political economy reporter at the Huffington Post. Most young people, Sam, don’t know things. How do you sell policy arguments when your intermediaries and your audience is so poorly educated in public policy arguments? A minute to the break.
ST: One possible solution. They’re all crazy for data. They may not know history. They love data. If you can throw numbers, charts and graphs at them, that’s what Klein does. You can make something happen.
HH: That’s a very interesting argument. Ezra is an interesting character. You should do a profile on him. He grew up and went to high school with my daughter, so I always tell him I have the photos of him in the 6th grade play. I can always ruin him overnight.
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HH: I want to set this up, it’s a big question, by playing for you a minute and a half of an interview I had in 2011 with Justice Breyer. He came to this studio, he was very open, very, if you don’t talk about a case that’s pending or the politics, Justice Breyer’s a very smart guy, and he’ll sit down with you. Here is the exchange we had from which I want to launch my big question, cut number four:
SB: Justice Scalia says that’s originalism, and the motive of that is a good motive, because I think that they want to control the subjective influence of the judge. They think that what I do, for example, or by looking more to Congressional purposes or trying to figure out what the values are underlying, say, the freedom of speech, underlying parts of the Constitution, they think it’s too subjective. I don’t think it’s too subjective. I think I write down my reasons, and I think people are free to criticize them, and you have. There’s nothing wrong with that. And we’re used to criticism. And that’s fine. And people certainly can criticize and pay attention to it, in general. Of course, they can criticize. But there are different approaches to these very grand problems, very different. And I think, for example, originalism doesn’t work very well. I think it’s pretty hard. I don’t think George Washington knew about the internet. I think our basic job there is to take the values in the Constitution, which don’t change, they’re virtually the same now as they were in the 18th Century. They’re the values of the Enlightenment, and apply them to today’s world, which changes every five minutes. I mean, yes, George Washington didn’t know the internet, nor did James Madison know about television, et cetera. And this world keeps changing.
HH: They knew liberty. That’s what they knew. They knew liberty.
HH: And there is where I think the article breaks down. A lot of us want to make that argument, that I talked to Justice Breyer for an hour about that problem, which is the framers knew liberty, they knew freedom, and your young reform cons want to talk about the child tax credit, which is wonderful. But a lot of the Republican Party wants to talk about the big issue of the size and scale of the federal government crushing everything, Sam. And no one really wants, that part of the party doesn’t want to have this conversation. They want combat on the front lines over the size and scale of the federal government.
ST: Well, one thing I’ll say there, Hugh, is if you look closely at what Yuval Levin has written, and what I describe in summary as some of his thinking in this article, you’ll actually see a very bold argument about not only just scaling down government, I think he really has an original idea here, but actually removing government as kind of the central force in the life of the society. Remember, he’s very big on Edmund Burke.
ST: …in civil society. I think if Yuval, or if someone who understand his, Yuval’s historical arguments, and has, you know, let’s be frank here, sort of the grace and elegance of a Bill Buckley or an Irving Kristol, someone who could write that kind of lyrical essay about what America right really be like, could take Yuval’s theory about how civil society can be at the center of our politics, and turn that into an argument that would connect exactly with the principal idea about reducing government that you’re talking about.
HH: And you just said…
ST: I do think that’s a missing piece.
HH: You said grace and eloquence. William F. Buckley used every medium, you know this better than anyone, he used every tool available, whether it was the 600 word column, Firing Line, television, radio, debates, running for mayor. He was ubiquitous in the media of his time. And I don’t know if these young reform cons are that good at this, or if anyone, Rubio, Paul, Cruz, yes, but do they get the necessity of that? Buckley was the consummate communicator.
ST: Yeah, but Buckley also was so brilliant. You know, I remember when Bill died, and people would come to me, and they’d say well, who was there like him before, and I said you know what, there was no one like him before, and we’re not going to see anyone like him since. I mean, he really, it was a singular figure. It doesn’t mean people can’t do great work, though. I absolutely agree with you about that. And there has to be kind of a cultural ease that Bill had. One of the great things about Bill was, though, as you know, he became a celebrity when he was in his 20s in the early 1950s. He actually became a great star in the 60s. He was very much at home with that kind of freeform culture. And it’s that kind of ease with a culture that kind of, that wink and a nod that Bill could always do…
HH: Well, let me close this way. The Age of Reagan was preceded by the rise of Buckley. And the age of –whether it’s Rubio or Rand Paul or Ted Cruz– is going to be preceded by the age of Arthur Brooks, because I do think Arthur Brooks is very much a Buckleyesque figure. That’s the kind of question you’ll raise for yourself when Sam Tanenhaus writes. Sam, happy 4th of July to you. Can The GOP Be A Party Of Ideas is linked at Hughhewitt.com. And it’s available at the New York Times website right now.
End of interview.