Conservatives Copying Liberals Copying Conservatives

Matthew Yglesias quotes an article on Douglas Holtz-Eakin’s proposal to set up a Center for American Progress for the right.

The irony, of course, is that the Center for American Progress itself was developed as a liberal answer to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has been a source of Republican policy ideas for decades. But Holtz-Eakin says established think tanks of the right, like Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute, were “not helpful” during the McCain campaign because they weren’t politically engaged or innovative in their media strategies.
That’s why Holtz-Eakin says he now looks to the Center for American Progress as a model. The center, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta, combined a battery of domestic and foreign policy proposals with outreach innovations, such as hosting film screenings around the country and collecting e-mail addresses of people who sign up for the screenings.

Matt is skeptical that this would work – he argues that the conservative movement has little in the way of substantive policy proposals, beyond the claim that cutting taxes is the solution to everything. Political scientists such as Steve Teles would point to a different set of problems. In his book on the conservative legal movement, Teles documents how conservative lawyers tried at first to copy the successful strategies of liberal lawyers, and found that it didn’t work out very well. The problems that conservatives needed to solve were different, and the available resources were different too. It was only when conservatives moved away from copycat strategies to a more sophisticated analysis of their problems and their environment that they began to succeed. Efforts by the left to copy the right haven’t worked very well either (the Constitutional Society, for example, is a faded shadow at best of the Federalist Society). As Steve notes in an online seminar that I heartily recommend to your attention (not least because I put it together):

An analogy is only good insofar as the things being analogized are really comparable. Conservatives made mistakes when they unthinkingly replicated in one context something that had worked for them—or for their liberal foes—in a very different context. Carefully studying what someone else did can, at the least, help you avoid making old mistakes, but only an accurate and searching understanding of one’s own situation can prevent the making of all new ones.
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