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My Neocon Problem

Washington Diarist

A blog called WurstWisdom, railing against the neoconservative domination of the planet, recently contained the following passage: "There are other Neocons or Neocon facilitators you may not have heard of because they are seldom in the public eye, the better to wield behind-the-scenes power. These include Grover Norquist, Richard Viguerie, John Bolton, Elliot Abrams, Norman Ornstein …"

It was extremely disappointing to have my cover blown in this fashion. I had considered my weekly columns in Roll Call inveighing on behalf of campaign finance reform an excellent camouflage for my nefarious stealth machinations. But, alas, my identification with the neocon conspiracy has now become a commonplace "fact" in certain quarters--many of them, strangely, in Iowa. A blogger for The Des Moines Register, for instance, has declared me "a neoconservative Washington Insider." An Iowan novelist with a blog called Is this Heaven? recently referred to me as a "far-right … flak." This is quite a turnabout for my reputation. My career as a congressional analyst has steadfastly avoided partisan politics. In fact, I'm one of those Jurassic-era Washingtonians who believes in the virtues of centrism and bipartisanship. I have worked closely with both John McCain and Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform and with Barack Obama and Fred Thompson on congressional and civil service reform. As for my enemies, they span the spectrum: My writings have enraged Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, as well as the chairmen of the black and Hispanic congressional caucuses.

So why am I now somehow a dangerous neocon? Without a doubt, it is because of my perch as a scholar at the now infamous American Enterprise Institute (AEI). I joined AEI as an adjunct in 1978, while I was teaching political science at Washington's Catholic University, before converting to a full time think-tanker six years later. It is true that AEI is a bastion of conservative thought, having a long relationship with the self-proclaimed godfather of the neoconservative movement, Irving Kristol. And it is also true that some of my AEI colleagues were early and enthusiastic supporters of war with Iraq. They helped provide the intellectual framework for it and contributed to the crafting of the surge strategy. Of course, this recent history accounts for the think tank's popular image--not to mention the urge of various blogging naifs and ignoramuses to cram me into the wrong ideological box.

I'm not, by nature, an outspoken company man. But the fusillades lobbed at AEI have got me thinking about my long-time intellectual home. And here's what I can tell you: I spent 13 years teaching full-time in university settings. Since then, I have regularly visited campuses. I can say flatly that the intellectual openness and lack of orthodoxy at AEI exceeds what I have seen on any college campus--and without faculty meetings. I have many pro-choice colleagues, along with a number of pro-life ones. There are many libertarians on issues like same-sex relationships. And, even though my writings have frequently ticked off conservative ideologues and business interests--especially my deep involvement in campaign finance reform--I have never once been told, "You can't say that" or "You better be careful." I have been able to pursue my interests in a completely unfettered way. I know that this is hard for people to understand, especially given the widespread desire to believe that a tight-knit cabal that convenes in a mysterious think tank is driving Bush administration policy. And I know that this flies in the face of a widespread desire to characterize all conservatives as intellectually intransigent. But life in Washington, thank goodness, is more complicated than that. I have many colleagues with strong opinions who are willing to listen to the opinions of those who disagree with them. And that fact gives me a sliver of hope. With many urgent issues, from global warming to subprime mortgage loans to health policy to pensions, there is plenty of sensible middle ground.

While I'm protesting unwarranted lumping into the neoconservative movement, I should mention another data point. I used to be a regular guest on my friend Al Franken's radio show on Air America, before he left the network. (Norman Podhoretz, with all due respect, can't claim this honor.) When Franken wrote a book imagining how he would run for president--his magnum opus, Why Not Me?--I played the role of his campaign manager. (Yes, my character handily defeated Karl Rove.) In the book, President Franken appoints the first all-Jewish cabinet. I'm very proud that he accepted my suggestion that he name Ralph Lauren (ne Lipschitz) as secretary of the Interior. Why do I invoke Al Franken's kosher cabinet? To be blunt, I have a suspicion (based on occasional e-mail rants I get) that, for some lunatics, my knee-jerk inclusion in the neocon camp has to do with my double whammy: a home at AEI and a very Jewish name.

Ten years ago, my association with AEI was either ignored by people who were only dimly familiar with think tanks, or seen as a reasonable linkage: a centrist at a center-right organization. The last five years have been very different. For a large swath of the left, whether bloggers or journalists, AEI has become known as the enemy's cave--and anyone associated with it must be a part of the enemy team. This isn't just the fault of highly ideological bloggers. The tendency of the press, especially television, to divide discourse into someone over on the left screaming at someone on the right has sharpened the sense of us versus them--with nobody ever standing in between. So, too, has the take-no-prisoners rhetoric of right-wing talk radio hosts and left-wing columnists.

I deeply regret these developments. On a personal level, life in the center has become, as the Franken cabinet might put it, a pain in the tuchas. Innocuous statements I have made--or even things that would make conservatives angry--are routinely mischaracterized as right-wing rants. It is a sad but real testament to the nature of political discourse in America that what one says these days is less significant than from where one says it.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

By Norm Ornstein