So a bunch of weeks ago I got a little snippy on Twitter, and found myself involved in a back and forth with some guy named Brian Riedl. He was clearly conservative, and didn’t share many of my viewpoints, and I was a bit mad and skittish and … and …
I DMed him to apologize.
I don’t actually recall the full specifics, but I felt as if I’d crossed a line. And, wonderfully, Brian replied warmly and elegantly. So we had a brief exchanged, and I asked whether he’d be up for a Quaz Q&A, not unlike the one his friend Guy Benson did back in 2015. He was game.
And here’s the truth: I don’t agree with much that Brian says. As a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Brian focuses on conservative budget, tax, and economic policies. He was also the director of budget and spending policy for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as a research fellow at the (loathed by most liberals) Heritage Foundation.
But … here’s the thing. Brian is an open guy. He’s willing to criticize Republicans, isn’t a particular fan of Donald Trump, believes the merging of cable news and social media to be a toxic 2019 brew. In other words, he’s a good fellow who I simply disagree with in myriad areas. That’s gonna happen in life. No biggie.
Today, Brian discusses the modern conservative, talks Rubio’s failed presidential bid and explains how you might think his last name is Reidl, Riedel, Reidel, Reedel, Riedle and Rydex.
(OK, I kid).
Brian Riedl, welcome to the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Brian–I’m gonna start with a blunt one. Earlier today, via Twitter (of course), the president mocked Sen. Blumenthal over an old false claim that he served in Vietnam—when he didn’t. The comment was re-Tweeted a bunch, Trump was given the ol’ cyber thumbs up for sticking it to the lib. And I’m sitting here thinking—this guy had five military deferments … some for bone spurs. Then he mocked John McCain for being captured. Then he ridiculed a Gold Star family. And, as someone who is conservative, and has been involved in politics for a good chunk of time, I need to ask—what the fuck? Why does the right keep going along with this? Can Trump do anything that will cause his base to turn?
BRIAN RIEDL: As background, I served on the staff of Sen. Rob Portman, and advised Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio in the 2012 and 2016 campaigns. My wing of the party is pro-growth, libertarian, optimistic, and civil. I am quite critical of much of President Trump’s behavior. But I also do not believe that the left fully grasps their role in “creating Trump” by spending so many years smearing seemingly every Republican politician and voter as the second coming of Hitler.
Conservatives have long felt slandered by “elite America” (the media, universities, and Hollywood) and leading Democrats as not just wrong or misguided, but irredeemable and “deplorable” Nazis who need to die off before progress can occur. In the narrative of American politics, conservatives are always portrayed as the villains. Then there was the vicious treatment of moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney – smeared as racist, sexist, warmongering sociopaths (Joe Biden also told an African-American audience that Mitt Romney planned to reinstitute slavery, and Democratic TV ads portrayed Paul Ryan murdering an elderly constituent, and accused Mitt Romney of causing a woman’s fatal cancer).
By 2016, conservatives had enough and nominated someone who – unlike McCain and Romney – would not sit idly back and “lose nicely.” That is the cultural appeal of Trump. Conservatives dislike much of his behavior, but they are desperate for someone who fights back. And the more the left attacks him, the more conservatives rally around him (just like intense conservative criticism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes her more beloved by liberals). It is pure tribalism and negative polarization on both sides right now.
Finally, I should mention that many other conservatives are truly offended by the President’s behavior, but have decided that as long as he pursues conservative policies – on issues like abortion, judges, and tax policy – they will mute their personal objections and pull the GOP lever.
J.P.: So you’re a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a member of Economics21, which means you focus on budget, tax and economic policy. But … what does that mean? What are you trying to accomplish? And what are you accomplishing?
B.R.: As a research fellow, I am trying to influence the debate on budget, tax, and economic policy. I publish full studies, write weekly op-eds, testify before Congress, advise lawmakers and campaigns, give speeches, and appear regularly on TV, radio, and in newspapers. My first goal is simply to provide basic information to the public. Specifically, nearly everything the public believes about federal spending, taxes, and budget deficits is spectacularly wrong. So I spend a lot of time publishing chart books of the federal budget to help people understand where their tax dollars really go. I see myself primarily as a teacher.
My specific policy passion is addressing the avalanche of federal debt that is about to hit this country. The national debt currently stands at $21 trillion, and is projected to rise to $105 trillion over the next 30 years. At that point, interest on the debt will be the largest federal expenditure, and will consume one-third of our taxes. If interest rates rise, the cost will be even higher. Many economists fear a debt-based collapse.
While many people focus their deficit concerns on the 2017 tax cuts – and it is fair to oppose this policy – the real long-term debt driver is soaring Social Security and Medicare costs. Over the next 30 years, the Congressional Budget Office projects that the Social Security and Medicare systems will run a staggering $100 trillion cash deficit (by comparison, the tax cuts would cost $9 trillion over 30 years if extended). This is a path to bankruptcy. Even cutting the Defense spending to European levels and doubling all tax rates on the rich would, together, close about 1/7 of the Social Security and Medicare deficit. My passion is solving the long-term deficit before we collapse into economic chaos – and that means primarily fixing Social Security and Medicare. The math is clear, even if the politics are brutal.
J.P.: You served as an economist for Marco Rubio during the 2016 Republican primary. I thought for the longest time he was destined to be the nominee, if not the next president. Looking back, what went wrong?
B.R.: Two things. First, the mood of the conservative movement was more populist and combative than really any Washington Republicans realized at the time. Romney-style optimism and moderation was out of style. Second, there were 15 Republicans splitting the anti-Trump vote. Had it been just three or four Republicans from the start, Sen. Rubio had a real shot. I also think Sen. Rubio would have defeated Sen. Clinton in the general election.
J.P.: I want Republicans to care about climate change. I’m desperate for it. But I know very few who do, and see very few who do. Why? Am I missing something?
B.R.: I’m not sure all Democrats care as much either. Climate change rates low as a voter priority, and support for a carbon tax collapses when poll respondents are told the cost to their household. For conservatives, the case for global warming action has been undermined by hysterics like Al Gore, who regularly make doomsday predictions that never come true. But I think the more common conservative viewpoint is that global warming is real – but the common liberal policies to combat it would impose an enormous economic burden while making almost no difference on long-term temperatures. The developing world is projected to account for nearly 80% of all CO emissions this century. Yet the Paris climate agreement basically left China, India, and the rest of the world on the same emissions path they were already on. So America made an enormous pledge to reduce its emissions – at a huge cost to incomes and jobs – and yet projected global warming by 2100 was not even significantly altered because the rest of the world’s promises were so weak. If we’re going to grind the U.S. economy to a halt, let’s at least be sure the sacrifices matter to global temperatures. In the meantime, we can keep investing in renewable technologies to transition our energy economy without killing growth.
J.P.: I know you’re a Wisconsin kid, a Packers fan, a UW grad with a master’s from Princeton. But why a career in politics? What was your path?
B.R.: I was a rebellious, class-skipping, metal head who eventually heard bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Queensryche increasingly channel their anti-authority attitudes into rage-filled political songs. Thus, a passionate, anti-authority libertarian was born. I started devouring political books when I was 16 – and this was the early 1990s when there was no Ann Coulter or Michael Moore, so instead I read Milton Friedman, Charles Murray, Alan Dershowitz and policy journals. Then, my senior year in high school, I joined my high school debate and forensics team. I was fortunate to win my first statewide tournament within three weeks, and by summer was part of the high school team that placed third at the national championships. That’s when I realized I could do this. Enrolling that fall of the University of Wisconsin, I just wanted to master public policy and then help fix problems like budget deficits, education, health care, and civil liberties. So I got a policy internship with the Governor (Tommy Thompson), joined campaigns, became an opinion columnist for the school newspaper, and became Chairman of the College Republicans (no, we were not all dorks). Looking back, politics works for me because I am outspoken, competitive, and want to save the world. Thank you, Metallica.
J.P.: You spent six years as the chief economist to Rob Portman, Ohio’s (very likeable) Republican senator. What exactly does it mean to be a senator’s chief economist? Because he doesn’t make any law—so is it advising him on state and national policy? And how big of an impact do you feel you had?
B.R.: As chief economist, I advised the Senator at various times on budget, spending, taxes, pensions, Social Security, health care, economic growth, and jobs. My primary role was to keep him up-to-date on all moving legislation in my issue area, and to write bill summaries and vote recommendations for bills that hit the floor. Additionally, I came up with ideas for legislation, drafted bills, and worked with other offices to build legislative coalitions. I staffed his activities as a member of the Budget and Finance Committees. I helped draft op-eds and floor speeches, while also working with the media to explain his views. Finally, I always made time to meet with constituents on Sen. Portman’s behalf.
Sen. Portman is an intelligent, thoughtful boss who would set aside politics and ask “what is the best policy?” I am proud of my role in his office. I helped him take some controversial (at the time) votes that eventually were strongly supported by his constituents, playing a role in his 20-point re-election margin in 2016. I drafted several bills that became law, and helped design his current bill to ban government shutdowns, which may be enacted this spring.
J.P.: I have a theory—the two-headed monster that is social media and cable news has made it an impossibility that we, as a nation, ever truly unites again. What says you? Is there any hope for, say, the type of American bonding we had in the weeks after 9.11?
B.R.: This worries me every day. Social media and cable news have created completely different liberal and conservative universes. We don’t want news, we want an echo chamber that confirms our biases and smears the other side as a bunch of monsters. It’s weird for me, because although I am a conservative/libertarian, I went to college on a far-left campus, attended a far-left graduate school program, live in a far-left community, and spend much of my job in Washington trying to build coalitions with liberals. I respect liberalism, and I see how my liberal friends have the best of intensions. Understanding and learning from the other side also makes me a much more effective conservative.
As for echo chambers, our only hope is for people to get out of their bubble. Read the best websites of the other side. Follow the other side’s experts on social media. Become friends with people who disagree with you. And no, do not cheat by following only the weakest advocates on the other side, or relying on your own side’s partisans to “summarize” (straw man) what the other side believes. Test yourself. Question your own assumptions and frameworks. And most of all, remember this: If you cannot come up with an intelligent, fair-minded reason why the other side supports a certain policy, the problem is that you are uninformed. That doesn’t mean the other side is right, of course. But I can assure you that there are brilliant, fair-minded people on both sides of every issue. It may feel good to get on our high horse and boil political disagreements down to “good/smart” vs. “evil/dumb,” but it is also lazy and uninformed. Just google “Dunning-Kruger effect.”
J.P.: I say this with no personal disrespect. Truly. But I don’t get being a Republican any longer. I understood it under Reagan, George H.W., even W. But I feel like your party has surrendered itself to a lifelong conman who talks shit, reads nothing, watches tons of cable news and is a national humiliation. Honestly, I don’t understand why the GOP has done this—because its principles (even if I disagreed with them) once seemed rock solid. I dunno, Brian. Do you disagree?
B.R.: The conservative movement is bigger than Donald Trump. Look, I believe in free markets, small government, individual responsibility, and libertarianism. I strongly support the Republican governors, mayors, and Members of Congress who are still pushing that agenda. I treat President Trump like all other politicians: I am supportive when he pushes my libertarian values (paring back over-regulation, reforming Medicaid, corporate tax reform, some of the judges), and critical when he does not (tariffs, runaway spending, rejecting Social Security and Medicare reform, and not more aggressively paying for the tax cuts). But regardless of whether I vote for Trump or not, the GOP will likely remain the long-term home for those of us who still believe in limited government and free markets. I take the long view.
An interesting side note is how little Democrats have done to woo disaffected Republicans. Instead, Democrats have: A) moved so aggressively to the left on policy, and B) become increasingly adversarial and ad hominem, not only towards Trump, but also towards GOP voters. This has baffled disaffected Republicans. I guess Democrats believe they have demographics on their side and don’t need frustrated Republicans. Democrats may do well in 2020, but long-term, they are missing a huge opportunity to expand their coalition.
J.P.: You were the lead architect of Mitt Romney’s deficit-reduction plan. OK, soup to nuts, how does one create a deficit-reduction plan?
B.R.: First, you need the CBO budget baseline – which is basically a big spreadsheet of the default budget outlook over the next 10-30 years. My baseline breaks annual spending levels into about 150 program categories (Social Security, defense, etc), and tax revenues into about 60 categories (payroll taxes, gas taxes, etc), and then projects the levels for each year outward. That is the starting point.
Then you set targets. The CBO baseline may project a $2 trillion budget deficit by 2025, but your candidate may want to cut the deficit to $1 trillion by then. So you go into the spending and tax rows, and begin turning dials. But you cannot simply write in new numbers like “cut Medicare $100 billion per year” – you need to actually have specific reforms that can provide the savings. CBO has a “Budget Options” book that lists about 200 reforms, each with the 10-year savings estimates. And for the larger programs, like Social Security and health care, I built my own models so I can plug in different reforms to get the savings. Then you turn dials until you meet the candidate’s budget target. Finally, the candidate will either sign off on the reforms, ask for additional options, or just decide that it is too hard to cut the deficit after all.
All campaigns do this, but most never dare to reveal the specifics to the public. The candidate wants to say “I have a plan to balance the budget” or “I will not add to the deficit,” but the actual spreadsheet often requires very difficult sacrifices that are left quiet until after the election. Everyone wants to play Santa during the campaign. The worst is when a candidate suddenly makes a new, expensive promise, and I have to say “um, we didn’t budget for that policy, so we either have to drop our deficit reduction target, or find more cuts elsewhere.”
J.P.: What’s the absolute craziest thing you’ve ever seen happen in politics? I don’t mean, “Trump wins” or “Obama wins.” I mean, literally visualized …
B.R.: The most surreal thing on TV was in December 20, 1998. The incoming House Speaker resigns, the President is impeached and – on split screen – the U.S. begins bombing Iraq during the impeachment vote. That was surreal.
As for behind the scenes: I wouldn’t call this “crazy,” but it is interesting how – when lawmakers are negotiating in private, with the cameras off – they often agree on a lot of policies and sympathize with each other having to “play to their base” by fighting each other’s policies in public. I have seen former top Presidential candidates – a few years after the election – freely admit to the opposing party’s lawmakers that they knew their own campaign proposals had been unworkable nonsense, but the slogans and soundbites had been too good to pass up.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRIAN RIEDL:
• Five all-time favorite Republicans: Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, and Rob Portman. Ryan and Walker have been Wisconsin friends of mine since the 1990s.
• Five all-time favorite Democrats: Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and Michael Bennet. I don’t mind if a Democrat holds extreme positions as long as he/she is principled, civil, avoids partisan games, and treats all sides with respect.
• If you were advising the Democrats (truly), who would you say is the candidate best positioned to beat Trump in 2020? And why?: If Joe Biden gets the nomination – a big if given the current Democratic mood – he unites the Dems, does not scare suburban swing voters, and even steals a share of the working-class Trump voters.
• Who would you say is the worst?: Elizabeth Warren will remind too many voters of Hillary Clinton. Trump has a playbook there.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Lynn Dickey, Coke Zero, romance novels, Heritage Foundation, Sean Hannity, Joe Biden, Guy Benson, Travis Scott, leftover turkey, Sugar Ray Leonard: My Goodness. Um… Lynn Dickey, Heritage Foundation, Guy Benson, Sean Hannity, leftover turkey, Sugar Ray Leonard, romance novels, Joe Biden, Coke Zero….who is Travis Scott?
• Why didn’t the whole James Lofton-John Jefferson pairing work out so well for the Packers?: It wasn’t a full disaster – the early 1980s Packers were among the league’s best offenses, and were held back by an atrocious defense. But Jefferson underachieved after the trade to Green Bay, reportedly because he hated the cold weather. In fairness, it is really cold!
• Three memories from your senior prom: I actually did not go – our high school had this culture where most seniors considered themselves too cool for prom (narrator: none of these students were actually cool!)
• All the ways Riedl is misspelled: Reidl, Riedel, Reidel, Reedel, Riedle, Rydex (not kidding). I’ve been misspelled three ways in the same news article.
• One question you would ask Willie McGee were he here right now: Be honest: If Rollie Fingers is healthy and closing, do my beloved Brewers beat you in the 1982 World Series?
• What’s the worst smell in the world?: The bathrooms at Penn Station in Manhattan