David Frum

05.15.12

Heartland Refugees Start New Think Tank

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On May 3rd, the Heartland Institute unveiled a controversial billboard equating belief in global warming with the beliefs of the Unabomber. This lead Heartland's Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate project to spin off to become its own think tank. The new think tank's director, Eli Lehrer, has long been an advocate for free market solutions to public policy problems and has also called for a more modern Republican Party.

I spoke with Lehrer about some of the goals of his new think tank: the R Street Institute. We began with the meaning behind the name:

"R Street is the dividing line between where lobbyists and politicians work and the part of Washington that's an ordinary city."

(If you look at a map of the city of Washington, R Street is on the border between many of DC's offices the more residential northern half.)

The name of the think tank is literally referring to, "straddling the world of high public policy making and realistic daily life."

Much of Lehrer's work at Heartland was related to insurance reform, focusing on problems such as the costs of the National Flood Insurance Program.

An R Street spokesman noted in an interview with Slate that while "Global warming is relevant to the risk of catastrophic floods," that climate science research won't be a focus of the institute.

However, R Street does have an interest in environmental issues. After "insurance reform", Lehrer cited "cutting wasteful and environmentally harmful government spending" as the second priority.

Lehrer spoke positively about working with groups such as American Rivers, Friends of the Earth, and the National Wildlife Federation on topics where there were shared goals:

"Most environmental groups, fairly or not, are seen as part of the left. There will be issues where we're not going to agree … but I do agree that conservatives do have to rediscover the heritage of people like Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater who worked for a cleaner and safer environment."

One example of pro-market & pro-environmentalist area where R Street and other groups might work together could be on energy subsidies. Lehrer wishes to see all energy subsidies eliminated. Many environmental groups don't agree but do want to see the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies: "My preference is to eliminate all energy subsidies as once, but I'm open to the idea that whenever you can get rid of a subsidy you should."

Lehrer hopes to bring a similar attitude to other policy areas such as entitlement reform and credit union deregulation. Lehrer said that R Street's motto will be "Free Markets, Real Solutions." It will be fascinating to see what solutions they come up with and what sort of coalitions they are able to form.