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Outlook: End of the Conservative Juggernaut?

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Greg Anrig
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Monday, August 4, 2008; 12:00 PM

Greg Anrig, vice president of programs at the Century Foundation and author of "The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing" was online Monday, Aug. 4 at noon ET to discuss the changing views of modern conservatives about the role of government in the lives of the American people.

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The transcript follows.

In Sunday's Outlook section, Anrig writes: The single theme that most animated the modern conservative movement was the conviction that government was the problem and market forces the solution. It was a simple, elegant, politically attractive idea, and the right applied it to virtually every major domestic challenge -- retirement security, health care, education, jobs, the environment and so on.

Whatever the issue, conservatives proposed substituting market forces for government -- pushing the bureaucrats aside and letting private-sector competition work to everyone's benefit.

So they advocated creating health savings accounts, handing out school vouchers, privatizing Social Security, shifting government functions to private contractors, and curtailing regulations on public health, safety, the environment and elsewhere. And, of course, they pushed to cut taxes to further weaken the public sector by "starving the beast."

President Bush has followed this playbook more closely than any previous president, including Reagan, notwithstanding today's desperate efforts by the right to distance itself from the deeply unpopular chief executive.

But in practice, those ideas have all failed to deliver on the promises the conservatives made, and in many instances, the dogma has actually created new problems. Particularly after Hurricane Katrina, when Americans saw how hapless the Federal Emergency Management Agency was, the public has begun to realize that the right's hostility toward government has produced only ineffective government. ... So now what?

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Greg Anrig: Good afternoon, everyone! I'm looking forward to a lively and interesting discussion about the damage that the conservative movement's ideas have done to our country and where we go from here.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Your book is like red meat to the Limbaugh/Hannity crowd -- I just wish I could see Hannity's head explode during this chat. But don't you feel that the population, as it ages and becomes more conservative, will embrace softer versions of the far right movement? Or are they going to think "where's mine?" when it comes to Social Security, health care, jobs and housing? Is there a balancing mechanism of thought out there with conservatives? And how will McCain attack Obama in the next three months?

Greg Anrig: Older folks tend to me more positive about the government because they very much like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. So as a larger share of the population moves into that older age bracket, I would expect them to become relatively less conservative.

Because McCain has a long history of strongly supporting most major conservative agenda planks, and because those ideas have failed in practice, he is going to do everything possible to focus on personal issues rather than substantive ones. That's what he's been doing so far and he's been very effective at it.

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Arlington, Va.: Will FEMA magically become "effective" under a liberal administration? If the pendulum swings too far left, expect the same exact movement back to the center.

Greg Anrig: FEMA was a notoriously poorly run agency preceding the Clinton administration. Then under James Lee Witt, who promoted experienced, knowledgeable pros to manage it, FEMA became widely viewed by both Democrats and Republicans as a great success story during the 1990s. Then Joe Allbaugh took it over under Bush and followed the conservative playbook of politicizing, privatizing, devolving, and cutting the agency. Morale plummeted able people left, and you saw what it looked like after Katrina. So presumably under a progressive president, they would go back to James Lee Witt's successful playbook and restore FEMA to its formerly effective state.

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Washington:"The public has begun to realize that the right's hostility toward government has produced only ineffective government." Um, this actually proves their point.

Greg Anrig: That's one of the most insidious aspects of the conservative strategy. After Katrina, people like David Boaz at the Cato Institute said: "You see, this is what we said all along! Big government can't do anything right!" But as I just mentioned, FEMA used to be an effective agency before it was dismantled by conservatives in power who are hostile to government.

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Fairfax, Va.: The mainstream media ignores the famous Deep Throat dictum to "follow the money trail." For example, instead of reporting on basic facts that everyone can grasp about who is making money by sticking with oil instead of funding alternative energy sources, or who makes money off the occupation of Iraq, you report on abstract questions like "government versus the marketplace." These are very difficult for the public to track, or to use in holding public officials accountable. Why don't you follow the money trail?

Greg Anrig: That's a very important point, because just about every aspect of why conservatism has failed as a governing approach relates to funding sources. The wealthy businesses executives and families who funded places like Heritage don't care about "good government." They want to roll back government so they will pay less in taxes and not have to worry about environmental regulations and so forth. But to sell those policies, they needed to come up with sales pitches that would make it sound like the policies would make everyone better off, not just rich people. So, for example, supply-side economics said everyone would benefit from lower taxes, and deficits would go down at the same time. That turned about to be wrong, but those wealthy funders of the right benefited in a big way.

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Los Angeles: Why not admit some of the benefits from the conservative movement, to balance out the alleged damage?

Greg Anrig: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, conservatives put forward legitimate critiques of government -- particularly their focus on unintended consequences of programs like welfare, for example. But when the right had to shift from the role of government critic to actively managing government themselves, that's when they started to push all of their free market ideas that weren't grounded in any kind of empirical research. They were just nice-sounding sales pitches. And they didn't work in practice. I think progressives have learned a lot from the early neoconservatives of the '70s about striving to avoid unintended consequences. But I don't think conservatives have yet learned much from their own failures in office.

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Las Vegas: Partial-birth abortion was finally banned. Roberts and Alito are not "failures" from the conservative viewpoint.

Greg Anrig: Right. One of the keys to the right's political success has been to focus on social issues like abortion and gay marriage that really motivate significant numbers of people. That worked well for them politically. But one thing to keep in mind that when it comes to actually governing -- managing the budget, the bureaucracy, the military, etc. -- that's what people in office mainly do as opposed to dealing with social issues. But those other bigger, more complicated issues tend to get short shrift during campaigns precisely because they are complicated and don't press people's buttons as much.

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Seattle: I take it as a given that doctrinal conservatives will oppose any attempts to raise taxes for any reason or improve the government's actual operating capacity. In light of that opposition, what chance does a progressive administration have to revitalize regulatory agencies, bring their staffs up to full capacity, modernize their equipment and methods, etc.?

Greg Anrig: It's a big conundrum. Take the FDA, for example. Back in the 1970s, it ranked among the most respected public agencies, with a public confidence rating of 80 percent. Then Reagan started cutting it. And then again, under the Republican Congress in the 1990s it was cut further. Then even deeper under Bush. Last year, it's public confidence rating was just 36 percent. All kinds of reports have talked about how it doesn't have enough people to carry out food inspections, and it's technology is outdated. That same pattern has happened throughout the government - the FAA, the EPA, the FBI, etc. The only way for that to change is for a president to really focus on the problem and get the public to understand how dangerous the situation has become. I really wish Obama would talk more about this.

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Fairfax, Va.: If there is a shift to accept more government, do you think there will be a shift from conservative social values, like accepting gay marriage?

Greg Anrig: Polls have been showing lately increasing public support for gay rights. That probably relates more to the extent to which people have grown to accept that it's time to change based on their personal reactions and relationships more than any broader philosophy of government. Many libertarians are among those who are strongly supportive of gay marriage, so it's one of those issues where there are divisions among conservatives.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Conservative economists long have argued that if everyone acts in their own self-interest that a natural equilibrium will be reached. Doesn't this ignore that a natural equilibrium may not be one that is socially conscious, that the gainers may leave behind many impoverished, and thus that there is a need for a safety net? Haven't we also noticed that people do not know to act in their own self-interests and may take undue risks? It is often hard to expect rationality from irrational people. Would you agree that this system, while it sounds good on paper, is doomed in practice?

Greg Anrig: Yes. Back in the 1950s, the poverty rate among the elderly was over 35 percent. Today it's around 10 percent, largely because of improvements made to Social Security and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs directly made our society better in concrete ways. Markets are obviously great and important, but they also inherently create winners and losers. So the government has a meaningful and crucial role to play in helping to make sure that those who lose out in the marketplace aren't impoverished.

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Waco, Texas: The never-ending drumbeat from the GOP is to "roll back taxes," a stance that saw its successful "birth" in the Proposition 13 movement in California circa 1978 (perhaps further illustrating your point that they haven't had a new idea on taxes in 30 years!). The tax-cut issue swept from California to a nation-wide "fixation." Now we have seen infrastructure collapse nationwide (the Minnesota bridge, the levees in New Orleans), and I for one wonder if the lack of federal support for maintenance efforts may've contributed to these heart-breaking calamities. Is there any hope that the GOP specifically (and the nation as a whole) will not someday realize the long-term benefits of infrastructure restoration and repair -- something which, oh by the way, costs money!

Greg Anrig: Yes. All kinds of studies have described huge shortcomings and problems with our transportation networks, the electric grid, and even basic things like sewage and water systems. All of those things, if upgraded and made more efficient would help our economy not only by creating jobs but my making the private sector more productive -- better able to transact goods and services. But it requires investing, which requires money. And we have been underinvesting since the Reagan era.

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Laurel, Md.: A lot of liberalism for the past 30 years has had to do with demographically-based identity politics. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to describe the red/blue split as "white males and the women married to them vs. everyone else." It is fairly obvious now that women have achieved (at least) parity in education, and even Barack Obama says his own kids don't need affirmative action. Is the next stage going to be reducing the emphasis on undoing legacies of discrimination?

Greg Anrig: There's no question that affirmative action, particularly in college admissions, was enormously important (along with other civil rights legislation like anti-discrimination laws) in helping to create the black middle class that has become quite significant. The question at this stage is whether we should do more to focus on helping low-income people of all races relatively more than focusing on race exclusively. Obama seems to be leaning in that direction, as I do.

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Fairfax County, Va.: One blogger recently suggested that if you want to put the myriad failures caused by conservative governing philosophy into a single line (suitable for bumper sticker use?) then the term "E. coli conservatives" might work ... that their gutting of legitimate, needed government watchdog functions has endangered the public health. Of course, I'd expect you might agree with the message, but I expect your book has many examples?

Greg Anrig: That's my friend Rick Perlstein, the author of another terrific book called "Nixonland." Rick shows that all of these failures that we have seen in recent years can really be traced decades into the past, arising out of tapping into deep hostility toward the part of some people toward government. But there are all kinds of examples -- tainted food, new drugs that cause much higher rates of adverse side effects after approval than in the past, unenforced minimum wage laws, a virtual halt to penalizing polluters. My book is filled with this stuff. And it's not just a matter of incompetence. It's an outgrowth of the right's belief system.

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Needham, Mass.: I suspect that talking about revitalizing all the agencies would open Obama up to "Big Spender" shibboleths from the McCain group -- and unless it is done really expertly, too many of the American people will fall for it. After all, that is what we have been indoctrinated with for the past 40 years. I saw a graphic that I believe showed that the EU was growing faster than we are right now, even with its higher taxation.

Greg Anrig: I think the way he should talk about this is to focus on the government getting more bang for the taxpayer's buck. Whatever dollar amount we spend on say, repairing the Coast Guard fleet, you want people in charge who will oversee how that money is spent so that it isn't thrown away at private companies that fail to do the job. Contracting out work to private companies on a no-bid or non-competitive basis soared under Bush. And billion of dollars was unnecessarily wasted as a result, according to piles of studies.

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Bluefield, W.Va.: Has there ever been a prolonged period of prosperity in the U.S. directly attributable to conservative economics? The GOP governed throughout the '20s, then came the Depression. Nixon left Carter a mess to deal with after curtailing regulation and freezing wages and prices. But for Bush I's huge tax hike ("read my lips" and all), Clinton would have inherited the mind-boggling debt held over from Reagan. Has conservatism ever worked?

Greg Anrig: The economy did well under the Eisenhower administration. Of course, Ike was a flaming liberal compared to most of today's conservative Republicans.

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Bethesda, Md.: What do the conservatives look to as a public benefit? It seems that their objectives are hollow at best.

Greg Anrig: Most leading members of moving conservatism don't think or talk in terms of public benefit, or the public good. They emphasize freedom and claim that less government equals more individual freedom. But that's proven to be a canard, as we have seen. You aren't free if you can't afford to pay your medical bills or get evicted from your home because a sleazeball mortgage company foisted a high-rate mortgage on you while misleading you about its provisions. Effective government makes people more free to pursue their lives as they would like, as Social Security has demonstrated and as universal health insurance would as well.

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Roseland, N.J.: My wife and I always are fascinated by the casual praising of the "free market," when that phrase in fact eliminates a crucial element of the success of the concept: a free and fair market. A completely free market, with no checks or regulation, is anarchy. That's why there always are checks built into the system -- you can't sell spoiled meat, you can't build and maintain a monopoly through predatory pricing practices, etc. Are Bush's failures in privatization truly a failure of "free market," or are any attributable to a lack of "fairness" -- e.g. no-bid contracts to Halliburton?

Greg Anrig: Right. Most markets are governed by rules of one sort or another. Tax policies also matter enormously in determining which companies and individuals pay more or less. Same with patent law and trade protections. So their use of the term "free market" is quite consciously intended to mislead people, because many of the rules the conservative movement has pushed through are directly intended to benefit particular companies and individuals. That's not "free," it's rigged.

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Needham, Mass.: The Republican mantra against taxes is that government should be small and the private sector should do the heavy lifting. Have the Republican think tanks proposed how the private sector will build all this infrastructure?

Greg Anrig: It's interesting that recently the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which obviously is a bastion of conservative Republicans, recently came out strongly in favor of new investments in roads and bridges. They recognize that those sorts of investments are good for business. I don't think they called for taxes to be raised to support that, however.

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Rochester, N.Y.: I have a theory about why conservative ideas have been such a catastrophic failure and it's pretty simple: The media fails to hold conservatives to the same standards that it holds progressives and centrists. Insane conservative ideas -- like supply-side economics -- are not bashed as the scams that they are, but rather are graded on some kind of strange curve. Do you agree with this theory?

Greg Anrig: I completely agree that the media deserves enormous blame in all of this. On matters related to public policy, their default position is to quote someone from Heritage and someone from a place like Brookings (which houses plenty of moderates and even a few conservatives) and then not really adjudicate who is right and who is wrong -- even when their is abundant evidence showing that the people from Heritage are flat-out wrong. Journalists are very very reluctant to distinguish facts from unsubstantiated claims in matters of policy. They say they aren't qualified, which may be true. But getting qualified should be part of doing their job right. The he said, she said reporting convention is something that conservatives have benefited from enormously.

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Alexandria, Va.: I think your suggestion that "conservatism is dying" is premature. Conservatives have struggled with President Bush, but the ideological essence isn't being overcome. I think you'll find even 20 years from now that enough Americans still find broad collectivism depersonalizing and repellent enough that GOP candidates still will invigorate a strong constituency.

Greg Anrig: I don't mean to argue that the conservative movement is going to disappear from the face of the earth by any means. With all of that self-interested money floating around, they will continue to be heard loud and clear. What I am saying is that because their ideas have failed in practice, particularly if someone like Obama can find it within himself to educate people about that reality, then it will be harder for conservatives to win elections. In some parts of the country, where there are few big cities and in the South, they always will dominate. But it overall it will be harder for them at the national level.

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Greenwood, Va.: You seem to make Katrina the monument to conservative failure, even saying that that's when you "progressives" gained the upper hand in the debates with conservatives. That attaches a lot to a huge natural disaster the proportions of which we probably never have seen. Also, FEMA had to redefine itself as a responder to terrorism after Sept. 11. I think you are shortchanging the efforts by FEMA during the Bush administration to focus on terrorism, not to mention the Homeland Security implementation and reorganization that occurred.

Greg Anrig: The creation of the Department of Homeland Security has been a total mess. It was a bad idea in the first place to agglomerate dozens of agencies, some of which had little connection to each other. That part of it wasn't so much a right-wing failure as just Bush and members of Congress feeling like they needed to do something big after Sept. 11. But it would be great if we could undo that decision. Unfortunately, it's too late now.

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Baltimore: I think that the Republican Party since the Eisenhower years sadly has lost sight of one fundamental tenet of true conservatism: Humans cannot be trusted to automatically do the right thing. Making a shibboleth of the free market and decrying regulation made possible the Savings and Loan meltdown of the Reagan years, Enron, the subprime mortgage mess and other excesses. Give people access to huge amounts of money and take your eyes off them, and the net result always will be theft on a grand scale. Edmund Burke would have known this. George W. Bush did not.

Greg Anrig: One thing to keep in mind is that the modern conservative movement has absolutely nothing to do with what Edmund Burke believed in about preserving the institutions and practices that are well established. Goldwater defined conservatism as building on successful social, economic, and political practices. But the modern right had no interest in building on successes. They pursued a much more radical set of ideas that broke dramatically with practices that had proven to be successful. That's how we got into Iraq. That's how FEMA was dismantled. That's why the FDA deteriorated. And that's why they tried to undercut Social Security.

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Greg Anrig: Okay, everyone, time for lunch! That was fun. Thanks for coming by.

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