Following the 2000 elections, those of us at the Republican National Committee, where I was then employed, were in a celebratory mood. The GOP had taken back the White House, there was a Republican majority in both the Senate and House, Republicans inhabited a majority of governors' mansions, and most state legislatures were Republican-controlled as well. "We've won it all!" a colleague exulted. "Yes," I replied, "now we just need to take back the news media, the entertainment media, the educational establishment, the unions, and the philanthropies."
I meant that as a joke. But since then I have come to conclude that if a majority of voters does not agree with Republicans and conservatives (let's argue about the differences between them another day) before the campaign begins, few are likely to have their minds changed by even the cleverest 30-second television ad.
I'm a neoconservative, at least in the literal sense of being relatively new to conservatism. In the 1970s, I was an exchange student in the Soviet Union. That knocked out of my thick skull whatever sympathy for the Communist project I had acquired in classrooms, from reading books such as Edgar Snow's Red Star over China and watching movies like Warren Beatty's Reds. In the 1980s, as a New York Times correspondent in Africa, it dawned on me that there is no "socialist path to development." And back in the USA in the 1990s, I finally realized that American liberals also are sailing toward the reefs-albeit with more tacking back and forth.
This ideological journey landed me at the Republican National Committee in 1997. Among the lessons I learned: It is the rare politician who wins an election by convincing voters to agree with him. More common is the politician who wins by convincing voters he agrees with them-knowing, from polls and focus groups, what opinions they hold.
This leads to the conclusion that the time to engage and persuade voters is between elections-a tougher task for those on the right than those on the left given the fact that conservatives and conservative ideas are virtually locked out of Hollywood and academia. Union bosses work hand in glove with Democrats (while business executives, by contrast, are a diverse lot). The reflexively liberal mainstream media reach a much wider audience than do conservative news outlets.
Right-of-center think tanks and advocacy groups need to work harder and smarter. For more than a decade, I've focused on national security full time, and on as bipartisan a basis as possible. There are liberals who get it-who see that totalitarian movements based in the "Muslim world" represent a serious threat to the West; who understand that peace requires strength and that weakness invites aggression; who grasp that we need to defend ourselves and our freedoms without apology or equivocation. But the number of Jacksonian Democrats-in both the Andrew and Scoop senses-is growing, at best, slowly.
There are committed philanthropists on the right, but the resources available to the left, e.g. through the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Open Society Institute, the Foundation to Promote Open Society, and the Democracy Alliance, are much greater.
George Soros and his associates, in particular, have spent a large fortune funding a network of organizations-including MoveOn.org, Human Rights Watch, the Center for American Progress, the New America Foundation, ThinkProgress, Media Matters, the Institute for Middle East Understanding, J Street, and the National Iranian American Council-that work strategically, between elections, to promote a broad range of liberal and leftist ideas and policies.
The future of conservatism would look considerably brighter if philanthropists on the right were to pick up the gauntlet Soros has thrown down, taking the fight for America beyond politics and the campaign season.