How to rescue a once-vibrant movement that has gone badly off course.
fell in love with politics as a little kid in 1956, when I spotted a big neon sign atop a downtown office building flashing its four capital letters to spell I . . . L I K E . . . I K E. Campaign ad budgets were not as lavish back then.
I did like Ike, especially after I got to shake his hand. My politically active, staunchly Republican father managed to position me directly in President Eisenhower’s path at a Pittsburgh campaign appearance that fall. The press loved the little guy in a plaid blazer presenting the president with a drawing of a Halloween pumpkin, and the photo ran in newspapers across the country. The next day, the president sent me a thank you note from the White House.
The decades that followed were an exciting time to be coming of age in the world of conservative ideas and Republican politics. The journey from Eisenhower to Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan was tumultuous, the intellectual combat fierce, and the eventual triumph exhilarating. I joined the State Department as a political economist in 1982 and went on to serve under three Republican presidents and one centrist Democrat, promoting the policies of the so-called “Washington Consensus”: free trade; bilateral investment; fiscal and monetary prudence; the rule of law; and deregulation of business, labor, and capital. In 2007, I moved to the Heritage Foundation, where I promoted those same policies for the next 15 years as a co-editor of the Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.
Conservatives are fond of warning that a government program, once established, never dies. The same, it turns out, can be said of conservative institutions.
Missing from my career, though, was the dynamism that had energized my younger self. After carrying Reagan to power, the coalition of economic libertarians, defense hawks, and social conservatives froze in place. The ideas advanced by this “Fusionism” were vital to stimulating economic growth after the stagflation of the 1970s and achieving victory in the Cold War. But once those tasks were complete, there was no second act. The upstart institutions that initially delivered so much change became the establishment and guarded their prerogatives jealously. As the world and its challenges evolved, the conservative movement did not. Instead, its internal contradictions festered.
Conservatives are fond of warning that a government program, once established, never dies. The same, it turns out, can be said of conservative institutions. Fusionist think tanks established strong brands and large payrolls, and if the donors would keep giving, then the Cold War hawks would find new wars to start, the supply-siders new taxes to cut. They are still doing it today.