Whether they can pull off this coup is for the courts to decide. But the bigger question is: Why in the world would they want to?
In 2006, the first page of Cato’s annual report included an admiring quote from, well, me. “The libertarian Cato Institute is the foremost advocate for small-government principles in American life,” I wrote.
I am not exactly a libertarian. I’m a technocrat. I believe in the government’s ability, and occasionally its responsibility, to help solve problems that the market can’t or won’t resolve on its own. I find much of Cato’s hard-line libertarianism — to the point of purging Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsey, libertarians who explored making common cause with liberals on select issues — naive, callous and occasionally absurd. And yet, it’s among a handful of think tanks whose work I regularly read and trust.
That’s because Cato is, well, “the foremost advocate for small-government principles in American life.” It advocates those principles when Democrats are in power, and when Republicans are in power. When I read Cato’s take on a policy question, I can trust that it is informed by more than partisan convenience. The same can’t be said for other think tanks in town.
The Heritage Foundation, for instance, is a conservative think tank that professes to pursue goals similar to Cato’s. Where Cato’s motto is “individual liberty, free markets, and peace,” Heritage’s mission is the advancement of “conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.”
In practice, however, whatever the Republican Party wants, so does Heritage. In 1989, Heritage helped develop the idea of universal health care delivered by the private sector through an individual mandate. In the early 1990s, it helped Senate Republicans build that concept into a legislative alternative to President Bill Clinton’s proposed reforms. In the early 2000s, Heritage worked with then-Governor Mitt Romney to implement the plan in Massachusetts. Then, when Obama won office and Democrats adopted Heritage’s idea, Heritage promptly fell into step with the Republican Party and turned ferociously against it.