This is Part II of a Christie Watch report on “reform conservatism.” In Part I, which appeared yesterday, we asked if there’s anything new in the ideas of the GOP’s reformicons, who got a boost from a big think-piece in The New York Times on July 2. In Part II, we discuss the funders and supporters of National Affairs and the reformicons.
When Barack Obama was elected president, Irving Kristol’s son, neocon Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, saw the need to start yet another new magazine that would revive the spirit of his father’s magazine and counter the menace of a resurgent progressive movement, as described succinctly in an article last year in The New Republic:
Despite his youth, Levin had been anointed the next great neoconservative. And in 2009, Bill Kristol gave him a title to match those expectations. Four years earlier, Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, had shuttered his legendary journal, The Public Interest. But with Obama’s victory, Kristol the Younger found himself longing to revive his dad’s publication. “The end of the Bush administration showed that conservatism wasn’t strong politically and even intellectually,” Kristol says. So he followed the old dictum: When intellectuals have nothing left to do, they start a magazine. Levin was appointed the editor of the new effort, National Affairs.
In the first issue of National Affairs, Levin took up the mantle of Irving Kristol:
National Affairs seeks consciously to model itself on the most influential American public-policy journal in history: The Public Interest. Founded in 1965, in the midst of an earlier era of daunting challenges and technocratic overconfidence, The Public Interest shed a bright light on our public life for decades, in the hands of its incomparable editor Irving Kristol, his co-editors Daniel Bell and then Nathan Glazer, and in its final years Adam Wolfson. We are successors to their project in a technical sense, as the company they founded to publish their magazine, National Affairs, Inc., is now home to ours (and the complete archives of The Public Interest are available for the first time on our website, www.nationalaffairs.com). We have been the beneficiaries of their guidance and help, too, though they bear no blame for our shortcomings. And we can only hope to be truly their successors in the merit, the quality, and the significance of the work we do, if with some different emphases for a different time.
So who specifically has put up the money to fund National Affairs? Not surprisingly, it’s the same coterie of neocon Wall Street moneymen and foundations that have funded the home base of neocon thought, the American Enterprise Institute, for years.
One prime backer is Roger Hertog, who made his fortune as head of the investment management firm, Sanford Bernstein. He also is a heavy backer of the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has also funded such magazines as Commentary and for a time, The New Republic and the newspaper The New York Sun.
Hertog explained, to Philanthropy magazine, how he and a clique of like-minded Wall Street moguls decided to take action when Obama was elected:
“When [The Public Interest] was formed, it brought together a remarkable group of thinkers to tackle a series of very big questions that at the time were being contested by the Great Society,” says Hertog. “In 2009, a number of us thought this was another moment like that.”
The same article, by Bret Stephens, the deputy editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal and a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, detailed the other money behind National Affairs who hope that Levin can be the same kind of force Irving Kristol was in shaping public opinion:
In backing National Affairs, funders—including Hertog, Bruce Kovner, and Paul Singer, as well as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust, and the William E. Simon Foundation—were fortunate to find Yuval Levin. At the time, Levin was a 32-year-old think tank scholar and former White House aide. Hertog considers Levin the “intellectual heir to Irving Kristol.” (The respect is clearly mutual; Levin credits Hertog as the “visionary” and “driving force” behind the creation of National Affairs.) Indeed, it is no stretch to say that Hertog’s investment in the journal is really an investment in Levin himself, consistent with Hertog’s belief that what matters when it comes to investing in ideas is finding the right people first. Only then does the question arise of creating the right vehicle to put their minds to work.
Two other key funders of National Affairs, Bruce Kovner and Paul Singer, are billionaire hedge fund managers and leading funders of neoconservative think-tanks. Kovner, who made his money trading commodities at his hedge fund Caxton, is chairman of the American Enterprise Institute. An extensive New York magazine profile described Kovner’s importance to the neoconservative movement:
He’s a neoconservative godfather…. He is among the backers of the Manhattan Institute and the fledgling right-wing daily the New York Sun…This is perhaps Bruce Kovner’s signal (and shared) achievement: to underwrite what had been extreme ideas and bring them into mainstream discourse…. Kovner’s relationship to AEI is the same as his relationship to all his causes: lordly. He plays visionary and psychiatrist to the AEI board. “He’s brilliant,” says [Richard] Perle. “He’s intellectually rigorous, balanced, and thoughtful.”
As for Singer, consider this, from a piece in Mother Jones last year by Peter Stone:
A hardline free-marketeer with political roots in the Barry Goldwater era, he despises the Obama administration’s push to tighten financial regulations.… The trifecta of big checks, high-powered connections, and influence in GOP policy circles has made Singer a kind of triple threat. “Singer is the big power broker in the Republican financial world,” says one operative who knows him. “He’s involved with almost everything.”
Among those who get Singer’s backing, Stone reports, are the Koch brothers’ various projects and the anti-tax zealots at the Club for Growth.
Along with these three Wall Street neocon power brokers, the funders of National Affairs include three of the top conservative foundations that have long aimed at shaping political and economic policy. The Searle Freedom Trust, founded in 1998 by Daniel Searle, with money from the pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle, describes its goal as preventing future generations from “living in a world dominated by big government.” To prevent that the foundation has put money into shaping policy on budget and taxes, education, the environment and the legal system. The foundation funds AEI, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute and a host of other conservative think tanks. The Bradley Foundation, which doled out more than $350 million between 2001 and 2010, according to a profile on the foundation in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, also funds National Affairs, along with funding the Hudson Institute; the Heritage Foundation; the American Enterprise Institute; the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace; and the Federalist Society, among others. And National Affairs’s other top foundation supporter, the William Simon Foundation, is also a leading backer of the Heritage Foundation.
In his New York Times piece, Tanenhaus goes out of his way to present Levin, Ponnuru et al. as would-be challengers of Republican orthodoxy, “serious-minded intellectuals” who are “soft-spoken and self-deprecating, with a quiet fervor for intellectual history and economic argument,” and willing to take on those with an “appetite for ideological purity.” In Washington, they allied with the so-called Young Guns, led by Eric Cantor, and the “YG Network” run by a Cantor aide and several other Capitol Hill conservatives, plus Ponnuru’s wife, April Ponnuru. In an example of Tanenhaus’s credulism, he’s unwilling to challenge the pontifications of April Ponnuru:
“It’s the only game in town,” she told me. “Most of the other activities have been negative and destructive.” She, too, talked at length about how the party was out of touch. “The biggest problem is that the politicians don’t represent the people. We’re identified with the rich and big business,” she said, ticking off a list of constituencies that Republicans have alienated: “Single women, Hispanics, young people.” Also as a wife and mother, she had serious doubts about any movement “that can offer nothing to a married woman with three children at the bottom half” of the economic heap.
As if any of these people have ever met or talked to anyone anywhere near “the bottom half” of the economic “heap.”
Writing in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, E.J. Dionne has penned his own take on the reformicon movement. Given the plight of Republicanism in 2014—given that it nearly self-destructed with the Ted Cruz–led government shutdown and given that it’s unable to connect with women, young people, African-Americans and Hispanics—Dionne notes that “reform” is a popular notion in GOP circles, and he locates it in the context of the George Bush/Karl Rove efforts fifteen years ago:
The reform conservatives can already claim a significant success: Almost all of God’s conservative children seem to want to take up the reform banner. This might lead to a certain skepticism as to whether there is any there here. The word “reform,” after all, polls very well. It was not surprising to see Karl Rove praise the movement in a March 2014 Wall Street Journal column. It was Rove, after all, who shrewdly rebaptized George W. Bush as “A Reformer with Results” to fend off John McCain’s 2000 challenge in the Republican presidential primaries.
Dionne notes that even the reformicons delight in bashing Obama as a statist, socialist-leaning president whose programs and policies—even when, as with the Affordable Care Act, they’re based on Republican ideas—and he questions if there’s anything new here:
So what is serious here, and what amounts to repackaging? David Frum, a true conservative heretic, argues that many on the right know that their product is not selling as they would wish. He uses the analogy of a failing pizza chain to ask the key question: How much are they willing to change the pizza, and how much are they merely changing the box? The answer turns out to be complicated.
Or maybe not so complicated. Dionne nicely eviscerates three speeches given by three would-be proponents of reform conservatism, by Marco Rubio, Eric Cantor and Utah’s Mike Lee. Curiously, though, even Dionne seems to believe that there is something positive in reform conservatism’s struggle to provide a new intellectual backbone for the Republican party. He writes:
Progressives can welcome Reformicon efforts to correct the GOP’s sharp tilt to the right, to reduce its overt hostility to government, and to rejoin the policy debate across a broad range of issues. Reform conservatism is better than the conservatism we have had.
If that’s true, it’s only because nothing could be worse. But really, if anything, it’s the same conservatism. Paraphrasing the Who: “Meet the new right-wing boss. Same as the old right-wing boss.”
You can read Part I here. Part III, on reform conservatism and foreign policy, will appear on Friday.