Ponnuru offers opportunities at 23rd annual dinner (Whipple)

In an increasingly contentious political climate, with the midterm elections only 23 days away, Ramesh Ponnuru gave a timely talk about “Conservative Opportunities” at our Annual Banquet on October 14. A senior editor for National Review, contributor to CBS News, and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he has written for many top tier publications and appeared on numerous TV news shows.

Mr. Ponnuru began by reminding the audience that he had broken bread with the Conservative Caucus of Delaware before, most recently in October 2013 when he introduced Justice Antonin Scalia. He characterized the members of our organization as a “hardy bunch,” in that would-be conservators of traditional values in this country face many challenges.

Not a big fan of Donald Trump, the speaker nevertheless acknowledged that the president has sparked some solid conservative victories – notably the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

For all the arguments brought up during the Kavanaugh confirmation battle, there wasn’t much talk about the purported evils of a conservative court. This line of attack hadn’t gained traction during the 2017 confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, so it wasn’t tried again.

Other positive accomplishments include tax cuts, the pruning of burdensome regulations, and the repeal of the individual mandate (the most hated feature of Obamacare). Beefing up the defense budget has been helpful, and there have been some positive steps toward dialing back support for abortion.

Republicans haven’t succeeded in repealing and replacing Obamacare, however, and there has been no clear-cut progress in combatting illegal immigration as of yet.

Failure to trim spending when taxes were cut is sparking a worrisome surge in budget deficits and debt even during an economic boom.

The president’s trade policies, or at least the way his administration has been trying to implement them, seem somewhat dicey. It’s not smart to brag about being “tough on China,” for example, without having a clear idea of what goals are being sought and a game plan for attaining them.

The president has governed like a conservative, even though he hasn’t always talked like one. Many conservatives have accepted him as a result, said Ponnuru, “although I’m not sure that I am on the Trump train.”

After passage of the big tax cut bill last December, there was a curious lack of energy. Republicans didn’t seem motivated to keep proposing policy goals and trying to get them implemented or at least setting them up as campaign issues, and their passivity left an opening for Democrats to talk up “progressive” ideas.

To regain the initiative, Ponnuru outlined several conservative opportunities that he believes should be pursued:

•Don’t give up on repealing and replacing Obamacare. If conservatives simply oppose the envisioned progression to single payer healthcare as unaffordable, they will ultimately be defeated. When liberals demand “Medicare for all,” therefore, propose an alternative goal of ensuring that everyone who wants catastrophic HCI can get it.

•Higher education system is out of control, in large part because the notion has gained acceptance that everyone should get a college degree in order to “get ahead.” Different kinds of institutions are needed to provide higher education, with alternative pathways for students with different needs and greater use of on-line learning.

It’s hard for enlightened educators like Mitch Daniels at Purdue to push through reforms when the federal government has written a blank check for student loans. If students don’t graduate with useful skills for the job market, there are bound to be defaults – which as matters stand will be covered by taxpayers. Making universities eat part of the losses would do wonders to promote more responsible behavior.

•Projected spending on entitlement programs is unsustainable and the president doesn’t want to make changes – especially with older people who can’t fairly be “cut off” from benefits for which they have been forced to pay for many years. OK, but ways must be found to combat perpetual growth in these programs, e.g., if it’s not politically feasible to work on Medicare right now start with Medicaid.

•Illegal immigration should not be allowed to continue simply because it’s not politically convenient to crack down on it. Enhancing border security is all very well, but don’t forget enforcement of visa time limits and making the E-Verify program operational so that “undocumented workers” won’t be able to readily find jobs in this country.

In short, the conservative game plan should be to build on this country’s existing strengths versus the progressive aspiration of “fundamentally transforming our society.”

In the discussion that followed, Mr. Ponnuru responded to questions about both policy nuances and political strategy. For example:

Is the medical lobby (hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies, etc.) happy with Obamacare? Yes, that’s how Obamacare got passed in the first place. But 1/6 of the economy can’t be taken over without some problems and the healthcare system hasn’t been working very smoothly. Ironically, Republicans have been pushing for reforms, only to be branded as tools of special interests that don’t support what they are trying to do.

•What do you think of the president’s comments about the activities of Lee and Grant, respectively, during the Civil War? By these and other seemingly irrelevant comments, Trump has been encouraging his supporters to push back. Voters feel the energy, and it’s good for their morale.

•How does Trump stand the pressure from all the hostile media coverage? He actually feeds off it, recognizing that his supporters have his back. Thus, it seems that the hostile media coverage of the Kavanaugh confirmation battle united the Republicans like never before.

•The Democrats are in chaos, and don’t seem to realize it. Have they ever looked worse? The other side has made a lot of mistakes in recent years and doesn’t want to admit it. Wisely or not, they are spending far more time deploring pro-Trumpers than trying to win them over, and as a result Democrats are becoming increasingly radicalized.

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