Posted by: Jeff | September 3, 2010

Think Tanks Should Think About Policies

David Frum has a sober and cogent critique of think tanks operating on the right over at FrumForum.  Observing the emerging trend for moderate or conservative commentators who openly criticize members or policies of the Republican political establishment to get fired, Frum worries that think tanks on the right are transforming into cheerleading organizations, engaging in the posturing of electoral politics rather than formulating innovative solutions to policy dilemmas.

This is, of course, detrimental to governance.  While it may make a fine short-term political strategy for a party ensconced by detractors on all sides – both in far right wings of the Tea Party, as well as among independent and liberal voters resentful of the Bush legacy – it is not good politics for the nation at large.  Frum asks what will happen if Republicans take charge:

We are likely soon to have a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, maybe the U.S. Senate too. And what will that majority do? The answer seems to be: They have not a clue. Unlike the Republican House and Senate majorities of 1994, unlike the Republican Senate majority of 1980, these new majorities will arrive with only slogans for a policy agenda. After staging a for-the-record vote against Obamacare, and after re-enacting the Bush tax cuts, it will be policy mission accomplished.

There’s little other policy inventory, because the think tanks have not done their proper work. Without a think tank agenda, the new majority will rapidly decline into a brokerage service for K Street.

After the GOP lost its majority in 2006, a leading think tanker said to me: “Somehow I always thought we’d get more done before we became completely corrupt.” How much will we get done next time given the poverty of our think tank work over the past half decade? And how can we expect better work from institutions that have so emphatically warned their employees that an unwanted answer can end a career?

The losers here are not Brink Lindsey (who has moved to a fine new position) or Will Wilkinson (whose personal future is more unsettled, but whose talents will surely also be recognized). The loser is a conservative political movement waiting at the end of the intellectual conveyor belt for a product that increasingly arrives so shoddy and defective that it might as well not come at all.

Republican political control of Congress looks like a sure thing this November, so the dearth of Republican policies is a concern to more than just the Republican elites hoping to sustain a movement.  Beyond the reactionary moves of rescinding health care, and the fiscally irresponsible position of continuing unsustainable tax cuts, what will Republicans do with power?  If, like Frum, we look to the right-wing think tanks for inspiration, we don’t see a whole lot.  And that’s troublesome.

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