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The resurgence of the Right in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan was a sight to behold. The country had just been through a demoralizing period under Carter (no need to re-recite the record) and from those depths emerged opportunity for visionary ideas long espoused by Reagan, Jack Kemp, and others to finally get a true public hearing.
Complementing these men were conservative think tanks who believed in economic prosperity, personal liberty, and a strong national defense. They held glitzy conferences, began their own media entities, delivered sanguine speeches on the doctrine and developed mailing lists to cultivate and stay in contact with their followers and donors. In time, many millions flowed into their coffers from enthusiastic donors large and small.
Fast forward 30 years. By 2010, the country had elected Bill Clinton twice—in large part because of George H.W. Bush’s refusal to carry the Reagan torch—and then President Obama, which could largely be attributed to the wild spending, wandering presidency of George W. Bush. Digging further into the conservative movement as a whole, it had become clear that through the decades its think tanks had devolved into patterns of holding forums that patronized donors but which few paid attention to, writing white papers no one read, chasing five-minute TV appearances that made them feel like someone in Washington, jetting around to self-celebratory conferences at lavish resorts, and basically living high on the cause with little impact and no accountability.
In other words, they weren’t effective. And today they aren’t effective.
If they were effective, they would be attacked relentlessly by the Left and, given their timid posture, all but destroyed. Yet their presidents are regularly paid a salary of $1 million and up, excluding travel budget. They have annual gala dinners with popular cable news pundits to raise the overhead budget, five staffers keep cushy jobs, and the Left continues marching us toward socialism like we aren’t even there.
At a lunch recently, I said to a colleague that if 60 percent of the conservative think tanks in the country disbanded, no one would care. He replied without missing a beat: “No one would notice.”
Exacerbating this ever more glaring fact was the election of President Trump, who has shown the country that politicians and think tank figures who have postured for 30 years about moving mountains for the public on issues of high moment are, for the most part, inept subversives. They weren’t terribly needed and weren’t pioneers at all; they simply glommed on to the success of others who had vision and vigor.
After two recent congressional cycles of Republican consultants scamming donors for millions and conservative thinktanks demonstrating they could do nothing but talk about issues with no means or desire to enact them, Trump became the solution for exasperated donors and voters. This has reduced certain exposed entities to holding what amounts to hustler cruises to help stay afloat, with mutual admiration society “luminaries” no one cares about “starring.” Some, thankfully, have folded.
Compounding these issues are those who run the conservative grantmaking foundations. Some of the Right’s major funders have selected obedient gatekeepers who are maybe 32 years old and quietly can’t believe their own luck having stumbled into such a role. They travel to nice resorts and shake hands but their job is to keep their job. Nothing innovative that might intimidate or make them look bad ever gets upstairs.
Beyond this, there is a certain clique that decides who gets what grant money—even if the money was wasted by an entity the previous year. This is often because there are consultants who specialize in securing this money who have deep relationships with the grantors, and that ox cannot be gored. Is this effective or impacting? Does it help the movement or the goals of the funders? Nyet. But that doesn’t matter. And precious few people know this, especially funders. If some conservative donors knew where a lot of their money went in the think tank world, they would be storming D.C. with pitchforks.
Donors on the Right who came of age in the Reagan era—and future donors—should consider these points as they assess their annual giving, their wills, and the people and projects to whom they give their hard-earned dollars.
“Is my money funding a lawsuit against a corrupt union or 20 spa dates?”
“Are we really moving the ball here or talking as we are overrun by the only people who seem to know we are in a war?”
“Is simply being right on ideas enough anymore?” (No).
There is often a comfort as a funder in giving to what we have become familiar with over the years, especially those where we have fond memories. Case in point would be Reagan-era donors who give lavishly to their alma maters because those years were some of the best of their lives; they do this despite the fact that their old university stomping grounds are now Marxist factories that should be defunded completely.
Some of my friends have stopped giving significant dollars to the University of Southern California given the school’s leadership. It is long past time for conservative funders to do the same with its think tanks and start demanding action and results for their money. Either stop giving or redirect their funds to groups that are taking the fight to the enemy. If Republicans don’t win back the House and there is a moderate Senate after 2020, this will become even more obvious. By 2024, after Trump is gone, those 60 percent of think tanks will be on their way to extinction.
In this age of war and survival, they won’t be missed. Their shopworn appeals will go out to tired donors saying “Help us fight the liberals.” And the donors will finally, wisely respond, “You can’t. Get a job.”
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