Conservative critics in liberal journal

By CHRISTIAN BOURGE, UPI Think Tanks Correspondent  |  June 18, 2002 at 5:16 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 18 (UPI) -- As the factories that turn out the ideas that influence the nation's public policy, think tanks often engage in spirited, and sometimes bloody, public debates with each other over major policy issues.

Less often, individual think tank policy experts on one side or another of the ideological line (most think tanks are clearly partisan and biased, though few officially admit that), will dissent from the official views of their organization or its affiliated political movement.

While these differences somtimes become public, they are rarely pursued through alliances with think tanks from the opposing end of the political spectrum.

That is why two articles in the recent issue of Blueprint magazine, published by the Democratic Leadership Council, are noteworthy.

The DLC -- a center-left coalition of so-called "New Democrats" -- is affiliated with the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. But both articles -- which address divisions within the conservative political wing of the Republican Party -- were written by conservative policy analysts affiliated with prominent conservative think tanks.

One piece, by Marshall Wittmann, director of the Project for Conservative Reform at the Hudson Institute, argues that the Bush White House has deepened the Republican party's long-standing ties to big business so much that the administration is now practicing a brand of corporate-centered politics that perilously diverges from the traditional conservative principles that once drove the party.

The other, by Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the editor of Policy Review (which until about two years ago was published by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation), argues that the dissident group of Republicans who supported Arizona Sen. John McCain as the party's presidential candidate in 2000 may find their hopes inadvertently fulfilled through the policy choices made by the Bush administration following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Some of those choices -- like increasing spending in various areas or placing tax barriers to the import of steel products -- run counter to the conservative policy doctrine that Bush espoused during the election and up until the day of the Sept. 11 attacks.

In both pieces, respected conservative thinkers are publicly criticizing the activities and policy choices of a Republican president, and are doing it in a Democrat-controlled media outlet. In the days of former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, this would have been unthinkable.

"Republicans need to address this issue of corporate accountability (in relation to Enron and other corporate failings), much the same way that Democrats had to address the issue of the excesses in liberalism," Wittmann told UPI. "It is my view that it is vitally important for the Republican Party to demonstrate that it is tough on white-collar crime, just as the Democrats have endeavored to show that they have credibility on crime and law and order."

Wittmann says that by ignoring this problem and making policy decisions based upon the desires and interests of corporations, the Bush administration is being more pro-business and pro-corporate than pro-market, which is usually the goal of Republican policy. Ignoring the traditional conservative doctrine in this way endangers the administration, he says. "Essentially, if the Republican Party has one Achilles' heel, it is that they are viewed as too close to corporate power."

In his less controversial but no less dissenting article, Lindberg explains that the Republican supporters of McCain believed that the senator potentially embodied the "national greatness" ethos of President Theodore Roosevelt, which focused on limited but active federal government, large national projects like national parks, active foreign policy and corporate meritocracy.

"I think that national greatness was an issue for some Republicans (who supported McCain), and they are now finding those aspirations fulfilled by George W. Bush and the terrorism war," said Lindberg.

The appearance of Lindberg's article in a Democratic journal highlights the disagreement among conservatives about whether "national greatness" is a conservative ideal, or even that Teddy Roosevelt was a great conservative leader and a model for today's conservative politicians.

Conservative stalwart Fred L. Smith Jr., founder and president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, says he does not understand the penchant among some conservatives for labeling Teddy Roosevelt as a great conservative hero.

Another conservative analyst questioned whether Lindberg's critique would be welcomed in traditional party circles -- even by those who agree with it -- given the unwillingness of many Republicans to openly criticize the Bush White House following the Sept. 11 attacks, and the administration's "either you're with us or against us" attitude.

Although Smith disagrees with most of Wittmann's and Lindberg's analyses about the current administration, he says such criticism from the ranks of conservative think tanks is not unexpected, given the lack of a clear ideology from the White House.

"I don't think these guys have diagnosed the problem correctly," said Smith, whose conservative activist think tank promotes market-based policy and has strong ties to corporate America. "The problem is that the Bush administration doesn't seem to have the conservative keel that keeps you on track in the maelstrom of politics."

Smith believes that there is a feeling of malaise among some conservatives -- in and out of the think tank world -- regarding the Bush White House. He says this is based upon the administration's lack of clarity about its support for the most basic of conservative principles, such as the need for less government intervention in private life and the marketplace.

He added that the White House demonstrated this lack of conservative focus with its surprise at both the conservative backlash on the pork barrel spending in the farm bill that was approved last month, and at the harsh response among conservatives to its decision to impose tariffs on steel imports. Conservative think tanks and policy analysts from groups like the Heritage Foundation criticized both moves.

"I can't speak for Cato, the Heritage Foundation or others, but I think there is restlessness (because) those groups have increasing doubts, and it will start moving over to a need to attack what is going on," said Smith.

Both Lindberg's and Wittmann's articles are noteworthy for what they represent, more than for what they say: The two pundits are not generating their dissent from inside the GOP, or even from a fringe group, or as talking heads on television, as is more common.

Peter Robinson, a research fellow specializing in politics and business at the Hoover Institution, believes that the two writers' choice of an outlet shows that think tanks are playing an important role in political debate.

"There are several think tanks that are politically interesting, and are much more interesting sources of commentary and dissent than either the political parties or, say, the floor of the House of Representatives," Robinson told UPI.

Ken Weinstein, a political analyst and vice president and director of the Washington, D.C., office of the Hudson Institute, said that although he doesn't agree with Wittmann's analysis of the administration or the state of conservative politics, the promotion of such thought-provoking ideas is the very reason Wittmann is at Hudson.

"Marshall will have some interesting idea and then a debate on the issue will ensue," said Weinstein. "He is very thoughtful, he is very creative. There are some people that you can spot their arguments a mile away, and Marshall is not like that."

Both authors were approached by Blueprint to write articles -- they did not write them first and have them rejected by more doctrinaire Republican publications. Although both said they had no problem publishing their critiques in a Democrat-sponsored publication, Wittmann joked that his "singular" conservative view would probably not be welcome in any publication that holds closely to Republican party ideology.

Smith, however, was not surprised that a liberal journal like Blueprint would want to print such comments. "You can see why they got published," he says. "A liberal journal is always looking to publish conservative attacks on the party."

According to Lindberg, these sorts of philosophical exchanges -- as opposed to the policy-specific recommendations that are more typical of think tank analysts -- are an extension of the need for outside ideas to be injected into politics and policy debates.

"I think the world of partisan politics is more of a consumer of ideas than a producer," he said. "It is interesting to look at the process by which political figures in Congress or in an administration arrive at a policy positions. At some point along the way it usually involves them selecting from a menu of options presented to them ... by people in the ideas world or in think tanks that link the course of ideas and politics and policy."

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