Commentary Magazine


Topic: New Republic

The New Republic’s Sinking Standards

Marc Tracy’s profile of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is unusually shallow, even by the standards of the “new” New Republic. I suppose that is something of an achievement.

Mr. Tracy’s piece doesn’t deny – it could not possibly deny – the intellectual influence of Levin on modern conservatism. So the next line of attack is that Levin, more operative than anything else, is simply toeing the (Republican) party line: 

Levin, however, doesn’t propose challenging GOP orthodoxy; he simply tries to make it sound less radical. That’s not the most high-minded project. But that’s the job of the state-of-the-art conservative intellectual, more operative than philosopher. … Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that Levin follows the Republican Party line on just about every issue of note—from taxes to education to abortion.

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Marc Tracy’s profile of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin is unusually shallow, even by the standards of the “new” New Republic. I suppose that is something of an achievement.

Mr. Tracy’s piece doesn’t deny – it could not possibly deny – the intellectual influence of Levin on modern conservatism. So the next line of attack is that Levin, more operative than anything else, is simply toeing the (Republican) party line: 

Levin, however, doesn’t propose challenging GOP orthodoxy; he simply tries to make it sound less radical. That’s not the most high-minded project. But that’s the job of the state-of-the-art conservative intellectual, more operative than philosopher. … Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that Levin follows the Republican Party line on just about every issue of note—from taxes to education to abortion.

As David Frum points out in his artful takedown of Tracy’s piece, “What about the possibility that the Republican line is following Yuval? On Medicare, at least, that happens to be the case – for better or worse.”

I can testify on this matter firsthand. When Representative Paul Ryan was developing his first budget in the aftermath of the 2010 election, there was real concern among some members of the House leadership as to whether to include premium support as part of the reform of Medicare. I was in private meetings in early 2011 in which some prominent House members and some very intelligent conservatives argued that this would be a bridge too far, that whatever the substantive arguments in favor of premium support it would be politically catastrophic. That argument was in fact made by real political operatives – pollsters, to be precise – in the meeting.

Some of us, on the other hand, argued that Republicans had an obligation, given the fiscal crisis that is being driven primarily by Medicare, to fundamentally reform the program and that Republicans could not be taken seriously as a party that stood for limited government unless it tackled Medicare. The most articulate and persuasive advocate for that point of view was Yuval Levin.

The point is that the notion that premium support was “GOP orthodoxy” as recently as two years ago is silly and sloppy; and one big reason the idea has now carried the day is because of the intelligent, informed and, yes, high-minded advocacy of Levin. On a supremely important issue he has changed the Republican Party, not the other way around. 

Even using the frivolous Tracy standard that an idea is only meritorious if it runs counter to what the Republican orthodoxy is at any given moment in time, Levin has not followed the conventional GOP line. For example, he argued, to little avail, that Republicans should have been vocal advocates against raising the payroll tax. He has said that in our current situation cutting marginal tax rates is not key to economic growth, hardly a Grover Norquist-like position. And he has been arguing the cause of upward mobility and civil society for quite some time. Only now, post-2012 election, are some Republican lawmakers catching up to him.

It may very well be that Mr. Tracy was unaware of all this, which would make him a bad reporter; or perhaps he was aware of this but chose to ignore it, which would make him a dishonest one. Whatever the explanation, the piece by Tracy is both light and misleading. Which is why it was a perfect fit for The New Republic

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