The group included most of the brainpower behind a new think tank, the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, which launched mid-September with a spiffy website and a new proposal by its president, Avik Roy, for replacing President Obama’s signature health-care law with a program of “near-universal” care that is more grounded in conservative principles.
FREOPP, as the organization calls itself, is meant to be much more than an intellectual counterweight to Trump and his populist policies. But it is hard to separate its birth from the Trump moment in the GOP.
It is a group dedicated, after all, to improving public policy for the very Americans powering Trump’s run for the White House.
"All of our research will be centered around people with below-median incomes or net worth," Roy explained in July, in the dining room of Washington PR maven Juleanna Glover, one of the group's board members. “I don’t think we see our job as to cure what’s wrong with the 2016 election. We look at it more as, this is a long-term problem.”
Roy heads FREOPP alongside Ames Brown, a New York investment firm manager who serves as the group's chairman. Other directors include Glover and Lanhee Chen, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who ran Mitt Romney's policy shop in 2012. Advisers include several young conservative thinkers who focus on economic opportunity in a variety of ways: Kristen Soltis Anderson, Evan Baehr, Emily Ekins, Reihan Salam and Scott Winship.
There are plenty of think tanks devoted to free markets, and some, including the liberal Washington Center for Equitable Growth, devoted squarely to issues of opportunity and inequality in the U.S. economy. The FREOPP crew, though, surveyed the policy landscape and saw no groups that blended the two: a grounding in market principles, but a focus on harnessing them — and bending them, when needed — to aid Americans struggling in the country's transition to an information economy.
“The point of this think tank is not rah-rah markets," Chen said. "It’s about helping people.”
Most opportunity research has been conducted “by those on the left, who have a very different vision for how to expand opportunity and what that looks like,” Winship said. FREOPP, he added, will likely examine ways government policies restrain economic opportunity, or study inequality not just in incomes, but in the costs Americans face at different levels of the income ladder.
In the July meeting, the group plotted strategy and structure. They'll start much leaner than most think tanks; they won't be buying any real estate anytime soon. They also stressed the importance of pushing ideas that will eventually translate into policy programs. As Roy likes to note, it took 10 years for the 1996 welfare reform to go from a scholar's idea to sweeping legislation, and the push for legalized gay marriage took even longer.
As their launch neared and Trump's campaign barreled on, Roy fretted openly about the forces of "white identity politics" growing within the Republican Party. He said that growth had come, in part, because conservative scholars had not appreciated the struggles of the frustrated workers Trump courts.
“If people don’t feel that anybody is listening to them, and their concerns are not seen as having any dignity, that’s when you start to see the rise of people like Donald Trump,” he said. “Conservatism needs to be about listening more and lecturing less.”