Thoughts That Count?
The GOP’s Woes and the Work of Conservative Think Tanks
PIETRO S. NIVOLA
How have Washington’s conservative think tanks shaped and, as some would argue, also set back the Republican Party and more generally the fortunes of America’s conservative movement?1 The following chapter grapples with this question in four parts. First, it will describe the obvious: that the party and the movement have been bruised; they were dealt major blows in two of the past three electoral cycles. Next, it will correct some misconceptions about the root of the troubles, one being a conjectured role of conservative think tanks as the principal sources of Republican policies. Thirdly, the essay offers a simpler set of explanations for the Republican tribulations. Last, I will explore why, regrettably, the impact of policy research institutions is often overstated.
The Republicans faced nearly insurmountable obstacles in the 2008 election. Their president wallowed in abysmal public approval ratings. Even before the financial meltdown in the early autumn of that year, and the economy’s accelerated descent into deep recession, more than 80 percent of the public had concluded that the country was on the wrong track.2 It would have been miraculous for the party that controlled the White House to win a third term in such bad economic times. Moreover, by 2008 two wars had dragged on for years. With seemingly no decisive end in sight, the electorate’s patience was exhausted. The president’s party in Congress, already sore from that yoke, was still licking its wounds from scandals that cost it control of the House of Representatives and Senate in the 2006 midterm election. With more than two dozen of its members retiring early, the Republican Party struggled to hold an unexpectedly large number of open seats.