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One of the biggest dilemmas for the Republican Party is what it should do after the Trump presidency, an eventuality that some on the right have been mulling since the early days of his administration.
In March, a group of conservative thinkers started a new organization called American Compass, which aims to move the Republican Party past clichés about Ronald Reagan’s policies.
“Applying conservative principles doesn’t mean just keep flipping through the 1980 playbook until you find the right tax cut,” said Oren Cass, a founding member of American Compass who serves as its executive director.
“It has to mean going back to the actual principles, and applying them to today's challenges,” Cass said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “I think that’s something that a lot of folks on right-of-center have gotten, frankly, lazy about, and that there’s just a lot of entrenched orthodoxy that does not come in for questioning.”
“I think … the Republican Party [has] really suffered from that. Trump didn’t affect a rethinking himself, but he created the space for it, and I think we better take advantage of it,” he said.
Cass said that Trump’s continual breaking of political norms — such as his refusal to recognize that he lost the 2020 election — “definitely interferes with the effort to build … a substantive future.”
Cass, 37, is an up-and-coming conservative thinker who got his start in politics on Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. Cass was an associate at Bain & Co., where Romney had worked before he co-founded Bain Capital, and was a senior policy adviser to Romney in 2012, when he became the GOP presidential nominee.
Since then, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has credited Cass with inspiring some of his proposals on reducing poverty. Cass was a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, before starting American Compass. His 2018 book “The Once and Future Worker” has received praise from conservatives and from some on the left as well.
Rubio also signed a statement that American Compass released in September criticizing the tendency on the right to demonize labor unions. “The defense of markets … has at times made us overly solicitous of businesses,” the statement said. “Workers must have a seat at the table.”
In this interview, Cass argues that conservatives should love the idea of labor unions, even though he believes that the American labor movement needs significant reform.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Yahoo News: You started this think tank, American Compass, in the spring. What inspired it, and what are you trying to accomplish?
Oren Cass: In the Trump era, I think there have been a lot of threads of thinking on the right of center, most of which predate Trump, but were really brought front and center by Trump, just thinking about: What is conservatism? And what should the right of center stand for? And is there more to life than tax cuts?
And my view certainly is that there is, and I think if you look, there are a tremendous number of researchers and writers and politicians who are really interested in that, and doing interesting work on it. And yet if you zoom out and look at the institutional level, I think it’s really hard to see. If you look at the major think tanks, the major publications, leadership in various parts of the government, it pretty much looks like it did pre-Trump, and I think the general tone you hear is that they would like to go back to how things were pre-Trump, that this too shall pass, and they kind of had their heads down and were waiting.
So, in my view as we think about now entering the post-Trump era and really wondering, “OK, well, where does the right of center go from here?” There’s a huge question whether it is just going to retrench back to what 2016 would’ve sounded like if Trump had never come down the great golden escalator, or if the reform threads that had started a little bit before, and that I think have shown so much promise since, really takes center stage.
So we created American Compass to at least be the start of an institution that represented that side of the argument, and could facilitate some of those discussions, flesh out what kinds of policies that might look like. And also, frankly, force some debates and discussions within the mainstream that I think a lot of folks might be more comfortable just not having, but that the right of center really needs to have if it’s going to emerge from this stronger.
Were you watching Trump gather steam during the  primary and thinking, “He’s capitalizing on the things I’ve been thinking about,” or was it more that his rise provoked thought that led to some of these conclusions?
Well, I’m a terrible political analyst. … I didn’t think that he had much chance as a candidate in the Republican Party. … But if you take an issue like trade, and thinking about China, I thought it was fascinating to see what he was saying, and to see the reaction to it, and to really accentuate something I’d already been experiencing, which is that the orthodox Republican view of, well, free trade is always good, and more free trade is always better, next topic, is just a terrible argument.
I’d written a cover story for National Review in 2014 called “Fight the Dragon,” basically arguing that the trade relationship with China was unsustainable. It wasn't even free trade, and we needed to have a confrontation over it. I’ll be the first to say when responses to something I do are substantive and thoughtful, and that was not the case here. The responses to it just indicated a total lack of in-depth thinking about the issue.
Who are the criticisms on trade coming from within the Republican Party?
The usual suspects. I think places like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, obviously, have a very strong perspective on these things, and strong by which I mean loud, not good. And folks at places like National Review, which to their credit had run my essay as well. Within the political world, I think a lot of the sort of standard economic advisers who are tapped by Republicans, all of those folks had this very clear view that we've already determined that free trade is good, so there is no other analysis to be done here, essentially.
I’ve since been accused of playing the China card, which I just think is very funny. China, it’s not some debating tactic. Its rise is probably the most significant economic and geopolitical global phenomenon of the last 40 years, and if your economic theories of how the market works don’t account for it, and don’t make good recommendations based on it, then that’s a real problem.
On issue after issue, when we talk about what American Compass is trying to do, it’s trying to recognize that the principles of conservatism, at least in my view, are still the right principles. And when in the late ’70s, or the early ’80s, you had the Reagan coalition applying those and developing an agenda, they did a great job in many respects, given what the world looked like in 1980, and what we needed to do.
But it’s 2020 now, and applying conservative principles doesn’t mean just keep flipping through the 1980 playbook until you find the right tax cut. It has to mean going back to the actual principles and applying them to today’s challenges.
As you’re looking now at Trump’s refusal to concede, you also have a lot of Republican senators who are not going along with the idea that Joe Biden is the president-elect. A lot of them are sort of keeping their heads down. There have been a few senators out there actually spreading misinformation about cheating or observers. Does any of that hurt your effort to create a more policy-focused agenda?
Well, I think it’s a continuation of what we’ve seen over the last four years, which is that you have, in Trump, a figure who does not adhere to any of the standard expectations we have for our leaders, and frankly, in a lot of disappointing ways that I think undermine important norms. And I would be surprised if that's not what happened right up until the end. I think what you’ve seen in how Republican politicians have handled that, generally speaking, is to draw a pretty stark line between saying and doing.
There’s been a, I think, fairly correct recognition that he can tweet or say whatever he wants, and getting into big fights about that, and having the media drag that into the story of the day, and get everybody to comment, and on and on. If you’re a Republican politician, that’s just not your interest. Politicians do what’s in their interest, and that is not in their interest.
Something I found funny was, everyone worried is Trump going to refuse to leave office — “Is this a coup?” and so forth. I mean, as far as I know, there’s not a single actual court decision of the past four years that the Trump administration has not adhered to. I’m not aware of any actual sort of refusal to abide by the law, with the exception of some of the executive-privilege-related questions where the courts themselves say, “These are political questions, who listens to who?”
And I think that’s the case here. I think the moment that you see the president or the administration do anything actually refusing to abide by the orders of a court, or what the law requires, I think you’ll see a very quick response, but I would expect to still see a lot of folks saying, “We’re not going to get dragged into the Twitter game.”
But I also do think that epistemology, and how a party treats facts, is a big deal too. You’ve got these populists like [Missouri Sen. Josh] Hawley, I don’t know what you would call [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz, but they’re chasing that constituency, which a lot of it is very loyal to Trump, and I worry for the country if you’ve got a continuation of the disregard for facts that Trump has shown in the GOP, and I just wonder how much that’s a concern for you of distracting from the substantive agenda I think you’re trying to promote.
I think that's a fair question, and I guess I didn't answer it the first time around with respect to sort of the postelection wrangling.
I think it definitely interferes with the effort to build sort of a substantive future. I also think though that they are two things that proceed on quite separate tracks in a sense. I mean, I think it’s interesting to step back and look on the right of center at how much progress it was possible to make independent of the Trump administration on actually starting to develop this kind of thinking. I mean, it was possible to create an American Compass, and very quickly have a lot of engagement, and activity around that.
In a sense, one of the things that’s so anomalous about this period is that Trump won. Usually realignment and rethinking of a party goes on in the wilderness. It was Goldwater’s crushing defeat in ’64 that I think probably started the process that led to Reagan in 1980. It was the Democrats getting crushed by Reagan twice in ’80 and ’84 that led to the Democratic Leadership Council and the work that ultimately led to Clinton in ’92. So I think in a sense the fact that you could have Trump rise up through the Republican Party, as he did in 2016, really signaled that this is probably a moment of realignment and rethinking that’s needed.
It’s probably a common criticism you get, that you’re just trying to provide intellectual cover for a racist politician. What I think is interesting about what we just saw in the election is a piece that you wrote, which is basically an argument for why you think his numbers among Latinos, and I think some African Americans, were up from 2016. Talk about why you think that is.
That’s certainly a criticism that comes up a lot, and I think it’s certainly very understandable coming from the sort of whatever the opposite of a closer observer is. As I mention, on an issue like trade, this was something that I and others had been working on for a long time before Trump, on kind of the question of a working-class realignment more generally.
All of this thinking existed already, what it came up against was the conventional wisdom on the right of center that we already have our formula, that substantively a rising tide lifts all ships, and tax cuts are going to deliver what we need, and politically that is what voters want. Trump represented an extraordinary moment both in proving that there was political flexibility and opportunity on the right of center, and frankly, underscoring that there were real problems in the country, that things are a lot worse for an awful lot of folks than the conventional wisdom, especially on the right of center, would’ve held.
I mean, a coalition and platform built in 1980 is only going to be relevant or sustainable for so long, and we see in both political parties over time, things get rethought, things change. And so I compare Donald Trump to sort of an earthquake. An earthquake levels things, and it shows you what was weak, but it doesn’t rebuild. The work of rebuilding comes afterward, and you’re going to have some people who rush in and say, “Let’s just put all those buildings back up.” And it’s really important to say, “No, no, no.”
The earthquake is obviously very bad in many ways, and it knocks a lot of stuff down, but it also creates an opportunity to learn and do better. ... If you look at what [minority voters] are actually most concerned about, in a lot of cases it’s [unrelated to] race. It is the basic questions of economic well-being, and national health.
And if you speak to the problems that they are concerned about, and say that you want to address them in ways that they want to see them addressed, they don’t want a website: Joe Biden’s plans for Latinos, Joe Biden’s plans for Asian Americans, Joe Biden’s plan for so and so. They would like to know about your plan for the American economy.
To see Trump make some progress there, even as he so badly — and in an inflammatory way — addressed a lot of race-related questions, in my mind, sort of points to what is a much larger opportunity to deliver a conservative message that could very well win majorities of those groups in the future.
What is the phrase that people usually use to describe what American Compass is about?
Some people call it populist conservatism, or conservative populism, there’s national conservatism, there’s economic nationalism. I don’t know that any of those exactly capture it, and so of course people ask me what they're supposed to call it, and I say, “Well, it’s bad form to name yourself.” We’re just going to wait until someone comes up with it. My actual response, which probably is not especially helpful, is that what we’re working on is what I would call actual conservatism.
Whereas in the ’60s and ’70s I think a lot of right-of-center economists in particular looked out at the market and said, the market is amazing. And [Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich] Hayek, who’s a fan favorite on the right, said quite explicitly, we don’t even have to understand how this works to be able to explain it, you just have to celebrate that it does work.
And it was working, and that’s terrific, but we are now in a period where it’s not working as well. For quite a long time markets have clearly not. ... They've been delivering a lot of GDP growth, they’ve been delivering a lot of absolute wealth. But in terms of widespread prosperity, and providing the foundation on which people of all aptitudes and all places can build good lives, the market has not been delivering as it needs to, or as we should expect it to, for quite a while.
I love markets. I think markets are exactly the right way we should be organizing the private sector of our society, and we need a large, robust private sector. But I’m not going to just take for granted that whatever markets are doing is great. Markets are a construct that need to operate within a set of rules to deliver a set of outcomes that support strong families and communities above all else, and when they’re not doing that, then it is absolutely important and fundamentally conservative to say, “Well, why not? What do we need to change?”
For a long time, conservatives basically outsourced all of that economic thinking to libertarians to the point that we now think, “Oh, well, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, that’s conservative.” Well, none of those things are inherently conservative, and so the work we’re doing is saying, “What if we actually took conservative principles and applied them to economic questions?”
Take the question of organized labor. I mean, we sort of just think of, “Oh, well, the left is pro-labor and the right is anti-labor.” Well, I think there are huge problems with the way labor unions operate in America, but the idea of labor unions — the idea that we should want workers to be able to organize, to have collective representation, to bargain on an equal footing with their employers — conservatives should love that. It’s a way to spread prosperity widely through the market instead of through redistribution. It’s a way to regulate workplaces through private agreements instead of through regulation. And it’s a foundational pillar of healthy civil society and strong communities.
Saying, “Hey, conservatives, what if instead of just trying to destroy today’s labor unions, we focused on discussing a conservative future for labor?” [is] exactly the kind of thing, I think, that we need to do, and that the right of center needs to do, if it’s going to be in the game going forward.
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