House Speaker John Boehner must have had nightmares like this: Sen. Ted Cruz, speaking before banks of cameras and a rapt press corps, planting his boots behind a podium that read Heritage Action for America. Here was the senator who goaded Republicans into forcing the government shutdown; here was the unaccountable 501(c)3 that backed him up. And here they were lecturing, just a few hours before a special House Republican meeting on how to raise the debt limit without further humiliation.
But the Texas senator wasn’t talking about health care. He’d come to talk up the American Energy Renaissance Act, one of 10 real-enough policy proposals that would be explained during the “2014 Conservative Policy Summit: An Agenda to Unite America.” Cruz’s bill, which will not make it through the Democratic-controlled Senate, would give an OK to the Keystone Pipeline and bar any further regulations on fracking. A printed schedule said he would speak for 15 minutes and do a 15-minute Q-and-A.
Thirty-four minutes later, Cruz said “thank you,” ended the speech, and exited stage right. The press corps escaped the auditorium and snaked around to the narrow space between the exit and the elevators. Reporters asked what size and model of wrench Cruz planned to throw into the debt limit negotiations.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the details are,” said Cruz, “but in my view we should not raise the debt ceiling without significant structural reforms that fix the tide and stop the out-of-control spending.”
The senator left the building. Half of the press and nearly half the crowd left with him. The lost body heat sent a chill around the 230-seat auditorium. This was, Heritage Action’s Tim Chapman COO suggested to me, pretty standard for the media—give ’em 10 actual policies to cover and watch them get distracted by a fight. “No offense.”
None taken, but who can blame the press? Last year, they watched Heritage Action send foundation president Jim DeMint on a national speaking tour and demand that any House Republican budget cut the funding for Obamacare. The resultant government shutdown ended when the Republicans funded Obamacare.
To this day Republicans can’t agree on whose fault this was. On The Tonight Show last month, Boehner credited his party with starting the “predictable disaster.” On Monday, after his Conservative Policy Summit speech about health care, Georgia Rep. Tom Price told reporters that “the president wanted to shut the government down, and he did.”
The summit was a chance to move on. A member of Congress would mention his most daring bill; a panel of policy mavens would discuss it. There would be bathroom and networking breaks, but no free lunch. It was down to business.
“I suppose, at times, it’s tempting to just sit back and be snide about the many failures of liberalism and big government,” said DeMint in his opening remarks. “With examples like Detroit and Obamacare, it’s just too easy.” Heritage Action was kicking off 2014 by featuring ideas that could win “broad agreement” from most of America, because “a mandate for conservatives without a plan, without an agenda, without legislation, is no mandate at all.”
This did not mean a less pugnacious version of Republicanism, or that the Heritage teams had been wrong to fight last year. When a questioner prodded DeMint to talk about the farm bill, which had been delayed for half a year by conservative protests and passed over Heritage Action’s opposition, the former senator declared a TKO.
“We helped Americans see that the farm bill is not really a farm bill,” he said. “It’s 80 percent food stamps, and the spending on food stamps had increased dramatically. They cut it back a little bit. If we hadn't forced a debate on it, there wouldn't have been any debate on food stamps. We didn’t win the argument, but I think we made it a little harder next time to pass a farm bill without reforms.”
DeMint passed the microphone to Heritage Action president Michael Needham, whom the media has settled on as the scheming Oz of the activist right. Needham was less cheery than DeMint. “America did not get to move our agriculture policy into the 21st century,” he said. “We’ve kept the same Soviet-style ag policies that this country has had for decades.” Later, outside the auditorium, he explained that this was not necessarily a negative view of things.
“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.”
“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.”