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Opinion How does a center-right think tank approach conservatism in the Trump era? AEI’s Robert Doar discusses.

Robert Doar assumed his position as president of the American Enterprise Institute on Monday. (Aaron Clamage via American Enterprise Institute)

This week, Robert Doar became the 12th president of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the leading think tanks in the conservative world. Below is a transcript of an interview with Doar, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Henry Olsen: Robert, you’re taking over one of the most important institutions on the center-right. What do you want people to know about you?

Robert Doar: I come to AEI from working in responsible positions in center-right administrations. I worked for former governor George Pataki for almost 12 years in New York state and then worked for former mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City. …

I am a manager more than I am a big thinker. … My goal is to make us a collection of individuals doing interesting and compelling work and contributing to the public debate in a way that furthers our core values — which are free markets, free people, limited government, a strong American role in the world and economic opportunity for all.

Olsen: What attracted you to public service? Many people with your orientation — poverty alleviation and economic opportunity for all — adopt principles more associated with the left. But you have always been a man of the center-right. Tell me a bit about both these things.

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Doar: I grew up in a household where my dad, John Doar, started the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in 1960 under President Eisenhower, and stayed under President Kennedy and President Johnson with increasing responsibility for representing the office in the South during the civil rights struggle. It was a really challenging, difficult and ultimately inspiring time for our country. We made progress then. …

Then he went to Brooklyn, at the request of Sen. Robert Kennedy, to head up an anti-poverty program in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. I think the area was overwhelmed by the top-down, entitlement focus of a federal anti-poverty policy that wasn’t working. When I saw that, this positive effort of the civil rights movement and this really frustrating effort in Brooklyn in the 1970s … I was drawn to public service, saying, “I’ve seen success, I’ve seen failure, so when I have an opportunity and get of age to serve my country, I want to work on the problem that seems to affect stuff and on which we’ve made very little progress.” …

The story of my values — why I am right-of-center, not left-of-center — is a very complicated story that has to do with a lot of influences. … My father was a Midwestern, limited-government Republican who also believed strongly in civil rights. … Dad also was not someone who particularly liked the encroachment on his freedom that came with taxes. My older brother once told me when I was trying to figure out Dad’s voting patterns: “I’ll tell you, Robert, Dad will always vote for that politician that will tax him the least.”

Then there was this experience with entitlements and welfare rights and the welfare policies of the ’70s and ’80s in New York City. The city really unraveled, and not only with regard to public assistance but also with regard to public security and schools. ... You see all of that and you become increasingly more comfortable with an appreciation for what I consider a more right-of-center viewpoint: limited government, emphasis on personal responsibility.

I should also say that I was heavily influenced by the long “twilight struggle” rhetoric of President Kennedy concerning the Soviet Union. That played a big role. The Soviet Union was, in some respects, what Ronald Reagan called “an evil empire.” The rollback that took place when the wall came down was one of the great events of the 20th century.

Olsen: Some people on the center-right or on the right use the words “limited government” as code for almost no federal-government domestic assistance. When you say that limited government is a core value of AEI and of yourself, what do you mean by those words?

Doar: I acknowledge that there is a role for government — even the federal government — in American life. To those who are extreme libertarians, I’m probably not entirely satisfactory because I do recognize that are ways in which government can have a positive influence on people’s lives. …

We have to be constantly conscious that government can’t solve all problems and often creates as many problems as it solves when it tries to solve problems. The really great institutions in American life that can have a really more positive effect are private associations among and between people; businesses and customers; communities and smaller governments closer to the people. …

I’m also talking about the cost of the federal government. We have to be conscious of the size and expense that we’re committing to. The commitments we have made on the part of the federal government are going to cost us something, and we need to be careful because we may not be able to afford them.

Olsen: AEI is often called a “conservative” think tank. Are you comfortable with that adjective? And if not, what adjective would you choose?

Doar: I’m comfortable with it, but there are others, too: free-market, free-enterprise-focused. We are the American Enterprise Institute, and that means we believe in people being able to start and lead enterprises on their own. …

No one word summarizes everything about us. For some people, the word “conservative” means things that aren’t necessarily consistent with who we are. Some people view “conservative” as being very rigid, and very opposed to change, and being very excessively willing to dictate their personal religious or moral values on others. I don’t think that’s what AEI is about. AEI is about freedom more than anything else. …

Olsen: How do you see the state of thinking on the center-right today, and what challenges do you see that ought to be addressed by serious people who, like you, broadly put themselves on the right of the spectrum rather than the left?

Doar: Our scholars will speak with many voices and have different approaches to this. I am not speaking for everyone here at AEI.

There have been four issues that upset the conventional wisdom about right-of-center leaders, thinkers and supporters in the last three or four years.

One is immigration. We are really torn apart about that. There are some who are sort of inclined with their focus on freedom to be much more open to increased immigration. There are others who are very concerned about the consequences and costs and implications for our economy — plus and minus — of immigration and other issues. Like the country, people on the right-of-center are uncertain about that. …

Entitlements is another one. The conventional view was that people who were right-of-center were going to be willing to bite the bullet and find ways to reduce the cost of government and the commitments we have made to retirees in both health care and Social Security. … Clearly the president campaigned and won enthusiastic support among Republicans, and he clearly is not interested at all in reforming the entitlement system in the United States. That’s an issue we are uncertain about as a group of people who think of themselves as right-of-center, and we have to resolve that.

The third is free trade. This is the one that is most hot right now because of what is going on with China. Again, this sort of doctrinaire “free trade is the way we think” has been clearly challenged. … Are there are times when efforts to redress an imbalance with a trading partner is appropriate?

The last is America’s role in the world. The 2016 election was in some way a repudiation among people on the right of a forward-leaning, forward-thrusting American willingness to use force around the world to advance our values, democracy and freedom. I think that is unresolved. …

These four issues have thrown us off, and we have to step up to examine them and reconsider. … I think it was President Lincoln who said the issues are new and we have to think anew. We must be willing to re-contemplate issues in the times we are in. …

Olsen: There are people on the right who implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, believe that those challenges are a force of the president’s idiosyncrasies and personality; that if you defeat the man, you defeat the challenge. Do you agree?

Doar: There are aspects of his leadership and presidency that are all tied up in his particularly unique way of communicating and his personality and his bumptiousness, if that’s a good term. But there are ideas there, too. They don’t strike me in some areas as being classically conservative Republican positions.

My interpretation of his success is it appears that someone who doesn’t take the prescribed conservative, far-right view of certain issues can still be nominated as a Republican candidate for president. If your question is “Is the Trump phenomenon all about his personality and not about his challenges on substance,” I say I think it’s about both. The substantive challenges are real. …

Olsen: You’re succeeding a man, Arthur Brooks, who carved out a very significant public-intellectual role for himself in a way that very few think tanks have seen in recent years. … How do you see your personal role as an intellectual thought leader under your presidency?

Doar: My view is to take that role very modestly, very humbly. My role is to bring great people here, great men and women who are contributing to the debate in a significant way. My persona should be less important than the personas of the six or seven strongest people that we have here.

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