Ross Douthat has written an interesting blog post about how new policy ideas are working their way through Amercan conservatism - and how they aren't. Douthat divides American conservatism into three groups:
1. The "elite" intelectual world of the think tanks, policy journals, and the conservative political magazines like National Review, Weekly Standard, and National Affairs
2. The broader world of the conservative movement to include Fox News, conservative talk radio. the Tea Partiers, pressure groups like the NRA and activism-oriented websites like RedState.
3. The institutional Republican Party that is made up of office holders, staffers, fundraisers consultants and such.
I have a quibble with Douthat's description of the first group as elite, because all three groups include political elites of different kinds - it is tough to think of some think tank guy as an elite but Sean Hannity or some Republican governor as not an elite. Maybe it is because there is no good word to describe the first group. Lets call them policy intellectuals (I'm open to other nonobscene suggestions.)
Douthat writes that conservative policy intellectuals like Yuval Levin, James Capretta, Nicole Gelinas, Ramesh Ponnuru and others have come up with some promising ideas for dealing with isues like health care and taxes under current conditions and generally updating the policy agenda of the Right. He is also concerned that the institutional Republican Party (minus some exceptions like Mitch Daniels and Paul Ryan) and the "movement" organs haven't shown much interest in those ideas as compared to bashing Obama.
I agree with Douthat's first point about conservative policy intellectuals having come up with some worthwhile ideas, but I think his complaints need some qualification. It takes a while for ideas to work their way from the think tanks and policy journals into the world of electoral politics. Douthat mentions the period of conservative intellectual ferment in the early 1970s with journals like The Public Interest and Commentary. He is right about the ferment, but it was also a period in which a Republican President imposed wage and price controls. It took years and sometimes decades for those ideas to be taken up by large groups of politicians.
This is linked to Douthat's complaint about the failure of these ideas to be taken up by the "movement" institutions with their wider audiences. I don't like it either, but I don't know how to apportion blame and I think that Douthat's favored tactic would tend to be counterproductive unless used with great tact and heavily supplemented with other approaches. Douthat would like conservative think tankers and magazines to call out Republican politicians and conservative momement figures who offer easy answers. Well that is sometimes a good idea, but there is friendly and unfriendly criticism. I think David Frum is a pretty good example of how not to go about it with his shots that virtually guarantee that much of the conservative audience will be closed to what he has to say. On the other hand, Ramesh Ponnuru is often critical of conservative suggestions like the FairTax, the Ryan Roadmap and the recent conservative meme that it is a big problem that much of America pays no income taxes and yet Ponnuru doesn't end up generating the same hostility from conservatives.
But more than being better at criticizing the populist conservative media, policy intellectuals should be looking for ways to join it from time to time. It is great that they do so much thinking, but it is crucial that they get their ideas out into media with large audiences. I don't know how the booking process works for shows like Hannity, Mark Levin's radio show or Fox and Friends, but there is alot of time to fill out there. I'd love to see (or hear) James Capretta explain a health care reform policy built around switching to renewable health insurance policies and state-based reinsurance pools or Robert Stein explaining pro-family tax reform. if it sounds boring, it is worth remembering that one of the early themes of conservative talk radio was how cutting capital gains taxes would help people who didn't own any stock. Building an interesting segment around how to have increased health care security and lower health care costs or how tax changes could make it easier to raise your kids and increase jobs shouldn't be an impossible sell.
Conservative policy intellectuals getting on those kinds of shows would also mitigate the problem of the Republican Party's slowness in adopting new policy ideas. Millions of people would be exposed to their ideas. It isn't everybody, but it is alot and if people are interested in the ideas they hear, they might share them with their friends who don't consume much conservative media. This might make it easier for some Republicans in right-leaning districts to adopt ideas that might sound too radical even to people who self-identify as conservative.
The last reason for conservative policy intellectuals to go on those kinds of programs is because the spread of political ideas is not about simple top-down distribution. The audience will have questions about how policies will impact their lives and whether those policies match up to their values. It will be, among other things, a testing process, and the reaction of the broader conservative audience will tell us some important things about the political viablility of those policies. So lets us get started.