The Heritage Foundation Wants You to Know They Have Ideas

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Feb. 10 2014 7:22 PM

Brainstorming at the Heritage Foundation

The conservative think tank held an ideas summit—don’t worry, it stills hates Obamacare.

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“You had, I think, $110 million spent in nine months from the farm lobby to pass this bill,” said Needham. “That’s more than labor unions spent. It was huge. A farm bill was going to be passed at some point, but the fact that it took this long is really good news for getting reform in the long term, because nobody wants to go through this again. People are going to want to sit down and talk, and ask: What are good ideas on the left, on the right?”

There’s a third question, one that Needham didn’t mention. At what point does a conservative idea stop being conservative and start being another failure of liberalism that a group like Heritage Action needs to oppose? It was in this building, after all, that scholars developed the idea of an individual health care mandate—clearly, a superior and market-based way of bringing the country closer to universal coverage. The Obama administration will probably never tire of reminding conservatives where the mandate came from.

Sure enough, Obamacare and its problems vexed the congressmen and wonks of the summit. “Obamacare took a lot of our labels,” said Tim Chapman. “They stole them from us—choice, freedom, that kind of stuff.”

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“It’s the entire dictionary of public policy!” said Grace-Marie Turner, president of the conservative Galen Institute. “They’ve taken our talking points to defend their health care policies. Choice, affordability—all these things.”

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan kicked off his pitch for a new welfare reform bill by attacking the latest example of the liberal judo flip. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that many Americans would find it easier to leave jobs, or take fewer hours, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans, whose own health care plans also tried to design “portable” health care plans untethered to employers, pronounced that Obamacare would kill 2.5 million jobs and create 2.5 million loafers.

“We crossed a line last week,” said Jordan. “We now have one of the two major parties in this country saying that less work and more welfare is part of the Democrat platform.” He shook his head. “Did you hear what Nancy Pelosi said about job lock? What Harry Reid said about job lock?”

But hadn’t Republicans also worried about “job lock”? Asking that missed the point, said Rep. Tom Price. “The Democrats came up with this job lock argument after they figured out how they were going to respond to the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs being lost because of Obamacare.”

Jordan pointed to the work of a university of Chicago economist, Carey Mulligan, whom conservatives have been crediting with the lost-work insight. The “job lock” solution allowed by Obamacare was the work of subsidies and meddling. It would have to be undone, like the rest of the law, in a full repeal bill.

“The CBO report was pretty specific—it was about a disincentive to work, in general, because of and directly attributable to Obamacare,” said Jordan. “Professor Mulligan’s work was spot on about this—it’s the tax increases, it’s the 40-hour work week, it’s a host of other things that contribute to the general point Mulligan was making.”

Anyway, that was a discussion for later—after the 2014 midterms, after the Obamacare backlash helped Republicans win at least six Senate seats. At Heritage, the new détente with congressional Republicans was all about new ideas, a mandate for 2015 or 2017. Long after Cruz and Jordan and most reporters were gone, Utah Sen. Mike Lee took the podium to talk about conservative reform in higher education.

“The conservative movement really is at its best,” said Lee, “when it’s all about ideas.”

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.