Conservative clash captures media attention

I detect an emerging trend in the anti-conservative mainstream media — using conservatives to attack other conservatives. The New York Times is leading the charge.

How else does one explain the Times publishing the op-ed by “common good conservative” Adrian Vermuele attacking originalism? Or an op-ed by three leading common good (or national) conservatives attacking the Republican foreign policy establishment?

The publication of the two pieces can partially be explained by the Times’ contempt for originalism and by its foreign policy dovishness. But the spectacle of conservative-on-conservative clash is surely the main selling point.

I’m not unhappy the op-eds were published. Though both seem flawed (the foreign policy piece is perhaps most noteworthy for its acknowledgement that many conservatives whom the authors view as their followers don’t agree with them on foreign policy, a point Damon Linker makes here), both contribute to the debate.

But does anyone suppose that Vermuele or the team of Sohrab Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and Gladden Pappin could publish a Times op-ed that simply stated their views on the Constitution or foreign policy and omitted criticism of other conservatives? I hope no one is that naïve.

The Washington Post gets into the act with a “pass the popcorn” article about the Heritage Foundation. The report focuses on conservative discontent with this D.C. institution as it was run by former head, Kay Coles James. She became the target of severe criticism from Donald Trump supporters such as Tucker Carlson.

James has been replaced by Kevin Roberts whom the Post describes as a “Texas firebrand.” Roberts certainly comes from Texas. He was head of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Is he a “firebrand”? I don’t know, but nothing in the Post’s article shows him to be.

As evidence that Roberts is, the Post reports that he reopened his Foundation two weeks after the Wuhan coronavirus “first hit.” In addition, he believes that shutdowns were “awful” — “worse than the disease itself.”

This view went against the grain in the first half of 2020. However, it is widely held now, especially if one refines it to say the harm inflicted by shutdowns has exceeded their health benefits. A thorough and fair study of the costs and benefits of shutdowns — if there’s anyone around who would conduct one — might well support this position. I think it would.

Questions about the pandemic response are important, obviously. However, I don’t think they will be central to an institution like Heritage. Issues like education, crime, trade, spending, and China seem more important to a full-purpose conservative think tank going forward.

I would love to see Heritage shift on some, though not all, of these matters.

According to the Post, Roberts’ is all about education. Without getting into the details, I think there’s lots of room for improvement at Heritage on this set of issues. It will be interesting to see how effectively Heritage fights against the teaching of what falls under the rubric of Critical Race Theory in K-12 education.

The issue of crime goes unmentioned by the Post. However, this is where I’d love to see a major reversal by Heritage.

Backed by the Kochs, Heritage helped lead the charge for leniency towards criminals, especially the federal felons favored by the First Step Act of 2018. Once a frequent visitor to Heritage, I don’t think I’ve set foot in the place since the enactment of that legislation.

The landscape of the debate over crime has changed dramatically since 2018. Maybe Heritage, under Roberts, will return to a more traditionally conservative approach — the one that was so effective against crime in the 1990s and early part of this century. More likely, it will retreat to the fringe of the debate. That, itself, would be welcome.

The Post notes that “Heritage experts criticized Trump’s attacks on China.” There is room for criticism of Trump on this issue. However, I believe Trump had the right line on China. If Heritage aligns itself more closely with Trump’s position, I will welcome that, too.

I’m happy, however, that Heritage has held fast to its views on government spending and debt. During the Obama years, Power Line was a constant critic of the debt the U.S. was running up. This didn’t cease to be a major concern just because, after Obama, it was Trump’s spending that added to the debt.

Heritage has always supported free trade. This stance, too, created discontent among many Trump supporters. I’d like to see a synthesis of support for free trade and aspects of the Trumpian critique. Maybe Heritage will help develop such a synthesis. Maybe not.

Clearly, there are major tensions in the conservative movement, including but not limited to the ones the Times has been highlighting and the ones I discuss here. Roberts says he’s not that bothered by them because he believes in “creative conflict.”

I believe in it too, up to a point. My hope is that the outcome of creative conflict at Heritage isn’t determined by fundraising concerns.

In any case, we can count of the Times and the Post to enjoy the conflict.

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