Think tanks Instrumental Weapons in Conservative Arsenal

Polls show that the public primarily blame Republicans in Congress, rather than President Clinton, for the recent (and future?) government shutdown. Those who blame both sides equally think that the battle is merely “political” in the worst sense. At the state level, Referendum 48, the property rights initiative, was soundly defeated earlier this month by a margin of 60-40.

Is the conservative revolution running out of steam?

No — not to hear John Carlson tell it on his KVI radio afternoon talk show. Indeed, the jovial Carlson, who infuriates liberals, is even more gleeful than usual these days as he urges Seattle area listeners to deluge the President with ball point pens to encourage him to sign a balanced budget.

In truth, there are good reasons for conservatives to smile. Though politically at sea for years, they finally can smell dry land. History, their onetime foe, seems to be on their side now. Significantly, while conservatives are keeping their promises, the opposition is accepting their premises. The issue in Washington, D.C., for example, no longer is whether to seek a balanced budget, but how to achieve it, and how soon.

Once you get the issues defined your way, it is possible to stop fighting rear-guard actions and go for a clear cut victory. When you really reduce spending growth to below the rate of inflation and commit in fact, not fancy, to a balanced budget, you can expect the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates. In anticipation of that, markets already have rallied. If you go on to reduce taxes on families and capital gains, economic expansion becomes sturdier, and philanthropic giving grows. If you genuinely constrain government over-regulation and decentralize government functions, personal liberty is enlarged. Seeing that all this really is possible, the voters want more.

Thus, conservatives may lose some day-to-day propaganda struggles, but the long term “fundamentals” of their position (as economists might say) are sound. In about two more elections they may emerge not only as the normal governing majority in politics, but also the major force in intellectual life — the status that liberals have occupied since the Depression.

The liberals’ ideas came out of academia, starting with the first self-conscious “political scientists” at Princeton and Johns Hopkins at the turn of the century. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson created the huge federal civil service, and it, too, generated ideas. The media, which was mostly conservative or neutral until 40 years ago, swung to the left in the 1950s, with a few notable exceptions, and gave liberalism an aura of moral superiority and political inevitability. Even big business was leery of wandering outside of the supposed liberal “consensus.”

The seeds of conservative renaissance, however, were planted during the very heyday of the liberal intellectuals by a philosopher named Russell Kirk and a small magazine edited by young Bill Buckley, National Review. But it has prospered thanks largely to an institution created in the present generation: the think tank. Some think tanks–or public policy institutes–are liberal, but most are not, and as you look at the pages of national and local magazines and newspapers, or listen to TV discussions and radio talk-shows, you are bombarded by the news and views of “fellows” in “institutes.” That’s new.

In national affairs, it happened first in Washington, D.C. with creation of the American Enterprise Institute (eclectic conservative), the Heritage Foundation (“movement” conservative, with a $28 million budget), and Cato Institute (libertarian), among others. But then a second phase occurred — explosively — at the state level, and, at last count, there are now some 60 think tanks around the country specializing in local and regional issues.

In Portland, there is the Cascade Institute and in Olympia, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, led by former state legislator Bob Williams. But the oldest public policy group in the Northwest is the Washington Institute, founded by John Carlson, which is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary.

I am prejudiced, I admit it. I have enjoyed John’s company ever since he was a delightfully irreverent college student at the University of Washington, assaulting the choleric dogmas of The UW Daily. He is still irreverent, and whether you find that delightful or not probably depends on your politics. He’s also smart and constructive. By founding the Washington Institute in 1985 and helping it to survive this long, he has given state and local government a whole new source of political ideas and initiative.

John has now graduated to a perch as institute “chairman” so that he can devote more of his time to harrying the left from his talk show, a weekly column and regular appearances on two TV discussion programs. Stomping around on the grapes of liberal wrath, he still lands hard on the toes of antagonists, but his writing and wit have matured like a vintage Merlot. Visiting dignitaries pay him court, and one of these days he is going to wake up and find that he is part of the Establishment. But, happily, not yet.

Meanwhile, an energetic former insurance executive, Bill Baldwin, runs the institute’s show out of donated offices in a West Seattle building with the biggest American flag you ever saw. From there issue papers decrying state regulatory and budgetary excesses, calls for stronger defense of property rights and a tough line on crime. A couple of years ago the institute helped conceptualize the “Three Strikes, You’re Out” legislation that now wins nods even from The White House. Institute arguments were used by state legislators who rolled back Gov. Lowry’s health care plan. At the moment, high priority is attached to increasing privatization of many state government functions.

In the midst of this policy agenda, Washington Institute also publishes Counterpoint, a newsletter that assigns itself the role of watchdog on the watchdogs of the media, usually biting at their heels, but also making “good dog” awards. Overall, critiquing the press is not exactly a winning strategy for assuring coverage of your other programs, but it does keep many readers amused and gratified, and maybe it does some good in reminding members of the Fourth Estate that they, too, are human.

For all of this, the state’s watchdogs of the right are grinning as they nip away. Every dog must have its day, and, after 10 years, the sun does not seem at all ready to set on the Washington Institute.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.