international analysis and commentary

Think tanks and the tank battles in the US political ground war


The development of a wide network of think tanks in the US is widely credited with the resurgence of a Republican Party left for dead after the debacle of 1964, in which Barry Goldwater, running against President Lyndon Baines Johnson, suffered the worst popular-vote defeat in US presidential history.  Only 16 years later, Ronald Reagan, running on essentially the same platform as Goldwater, won the presidency against incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a Johnson-sized landslide.

Of course, much had changed between 1964 and 1980 that undermined Americans’ faith in government. But ideas shape events as much as events shape ideas: the conservative think tank network hadn’t just given Reagan’s agenda elaboration and depth. It had also helped engender and guide the change in the public debate that led to Reagan’s eventual triumph.

Consciously attempting to copy the successful conservative blueprint, a variety of Democratic-affiliated think tanks flowered in the wake of the setbacks of 1980 and the even more disastrous rout suffered four years later in Reagan’s re-election. These included the Economic Policy Institute, a largely pro-Labor effort intended to rescue liberalism, and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), created by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. This dichotomy (which repeated itself after the triumph of George W. Bush in 2000) both reflected and institutionalized a division within the Democratic Party between those committed to saving the True Faith and those who saw the future in pragmatic recalibration – a battle still playing out between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and.

The most notable feature of this think tank ecosystem is that, while it has proved a powerful incubator of policy programs on both sides of the aisle, it fills that role largely before its respective partisans take office, not during their tenure. This isn’t particularly surprising: government service is generally a process of spending down intellectual capital developed beforehand. The think tanks thus play their role in developing the agenda of the next Administration, and – perhaps even more crucially – the campaign platform that will help get it elected.

On that score, it could be argued that, since the rise of this intense think tank competition – almost a “tank battle” –, Democrats have done slightly better, winning four of the last seven presidential elections (and the popular vote in a fifth, the 2000 Bush-vs.-Gore). But the reality is that liberal think tanks have done nowhere near as much to move the debate as their conservative models. In large part, this is because Democrats viewed their challenge after each disastrous defeat as figuring out how to adjust their positions better to comport with a more conservative political climate; conservatives, in contrast, have viewed the challenge as changing public attitudes to comport with their agenda – and have largely succeeded. Looking at the current presidential campaign, there has been no real attempt by Democrats to challenge, for example, anti-tax “orthodoxy” – in the April 14 Democratic debate held in Brooklyn, Sanders, no matter how much he tried, couldn’t get Clinton to commit even to raising the cap on incomes subject to the payroll tax supporting Social Security, the single most regressive feature of the US tax system, a change that would affect only the top 6% of wage-earners.

There’s been one notable exception: the tangled history of the individual insurance mandate that forms the core of Obamacare and will undoubtedly stand as the largest element of President Obama’s domestic legacy.  When this emerged as the flashpoint of the Affordable Care Act debate, Democrats took great glee in pointing out that the idea had originated at one of the most conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation. As a result, something of a cottage industry developed on the right in explaining away Obamacare’s conservative origins.  The most concise summary is this: it was an attempt to develop a “conservative,” market-oriented approach at a time (the 1980s) when even conservatives still largely accepted that some form of welfare state was here to stay.

The individual mandate idea was rooted in acceptance of the notion that health care is a right that government would guarantee even the poorest – if preferably through private insurance rather than a government program like Medicare. The problem then becomes how to keep people from “gaming” the system by buying insurance only when they need it, and the solution is to require everyone always to carry coverage (as we do with automobile insurance). Ultimately, the justification for the mandate has come under attack from both the left and the right.

There are other ways to keep people from gaming the system; I had proposed one years earlier for PPI (in a slightly different context – long-term care rather than health insurance), but the moderates I developed it for, who generally scorned liberals, accused me of sounding too much like a conservative. Meanwhile, as conservative commentator Ramesh Ponuru has pointed out, the grassroots conservatives who now drive the Republican Party likely never accepted this idea, and amongst think tanks it was embraced only at Heritage. It was picked up, however, by Republican politicians as an alternative to Clinton-era health care reform that would have promoted a greater role for the government. Ironically, it then emerged in 2008 as the centerpiece of Democratic proposals for universal coverage that bowed to the perceived anti-government, pro-market zeitgeist – a 180-degree flip from its origins.

That may make the mandate the exception that proves the rule. Conservative thinkers are best at identifying all the ways that governmental efforts go wrong. They thus perform a valuable function in the political debate by poking holes in liberal proposals for government action (if, indeed, simply to maintain the status quo). The Heritage mandate proposal was the rare instance of a conservative think tank accepting a liberal premise (a government-guaranteed right to health care) and simply trying to figure out how to make it most efficient and effective. But it ultimately wound up as the centerpiece of the greatest liberal programmatic advance in roughly 40 years – in order to buy off the insurance industry by creating a government-guaranteed right to customers.

In short, think tanks probably contribute less by their “thinking” than by serving as “tanks” in America’s ever-raging political ground war.