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Is Romney’s former adviser building the post-Trump GOP?

Oren Cass has made a name for himself rejecting the conservative economic consensus. Mitt Romney was his inspiration

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Oren Cass has made a name for himself rejecting the conservative economic consensus.

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News / Source: Sipa USA, Associated Press

At first glance, Oren Cass is an amalgam of East Coast elitism — an Ivy League pedigree insulated in a Bain & Company pullover. But this think tank maverick is no friend of the establishment.

A decade ago, he was on track to become one of them, acing his final year at Harvard Law while simultaneously serving as Mitt Romney’s top domestic policy adviser for his 2012 presidential campaign. 

But Cass has quickly carved out a reputation as one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Republican old guard, providing a defense of Donald Trump’s disruption of conservative doctrine and authoring a policy agenda for GOP legislators trying to raise something from the rubble.

“The problem is that Trump was not necessarily a very effective builder,” Cass told me. “He was very good at knocking things down. But I don’t think he brought a coherent vision for where to go forward. And so that is the work that is now being done.”

Chiseling away at what he sees as an outmoded economic orthodoxy and replacing it with a Republican agenda centered around family, community and nation, has become Cass’ mission, and that of American Compass, the organization he founded in December 2019. 

The subsequent four years have seen Cass’ clout on Capitol Hill grow at a rapid clip. American Compass is now characterized as one of the most impactful groups inside the Beltway, influencing prominent senators like Romney, J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and providing a blueprint for a new generation of eager congressional staffers.   

While his research methods and left-wing funding sources have drawn the ire of many right-of-center thinkers, Cass rejects the charge that he is hitching an opportunistic ride on the Trump train. He’s a lifelong New England conservative in the mold of Romney, who he cites as his inspiration for breaking free of the creeds of a bygone Cold War coalition.

But to substitute what he calls “market fundamentalism” — an absolute belief in free markets — with a government-guided capitalism, Cass will need fellow Republicans to become comfortable with his favorite pastime: jettisoning the status quo. 

Casting aside ‘inherited dogma’

A week before the 45th president vacated the White House — Jan. 6 and impeachment still fresh in the air — Cass appeared with the party’s sage of Reaganite philosophy, George F. Will, to debate what should come next. 

In the place of a well-worn playbook of tax cuts, deregulation and international trade, Cass proposed a national populism that would cause icons of 20th-century conservatism, like Will, to draw an ideological line in the sand. 

“Populism is everything that conservatism isn’t,” Will said, denouncing Cass just as he had done months earlier when he labeled him a socialist. 

Responding to both accusations, Cass justified his affinity for labor unions and industrial policy with an appeal to political expediency, not theory. 

“Issues like these are the ones that are going to demonstrate that conservatism is not just some sort of highfalutin philosophy but it’s actually an approach to today’s challenges that will resonate with people,” Cass stressed during the debate, his over-expressive eyebrows springing from his thick, black-rimmed spectacles. “And I think that’s how we build a coalition going forward.”

Cass’ erudite demeanor belies a knack for ending up on the opposite side of the prevailing consensus, something that has followed him since his days at a progressive charter school in suburban Massachusetts. 

Tutored by an attorney grandfather known for playing devil’s advocate only to switch positions as soon as he had persuaded his audience, Cass took to assuming different policy stances in school debates, sometimes with the goal of understanding them better and sometimes just to shatter the complacency of accepted wisdom.

“I’ve always enjoyed arguing if nothing else,” Cass jokes. “And I think politics and public policy are an especially constructive forum for that.”

So maybe it was no surprise that Cass felt right at home studying political economy as a “small-C conservative” at the No. 1-ranked liberal arts school in the nation, Williams College, nestled in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, where Cass now lives with his wife and three children. 

But in pushing against the academic orthodoxy, Cass slipped into the language of what he now considers “a fundamentalist sect,” praising laissez-faire globalism with a certainty he now believes was unwarranted. 

Cass’ adherence to business-friendly talking points, however, served his youthful ambitions well when he joined Bain & Company as a junior consultant after graduation, followed a few years later by a position as a junior policy analyst for the first presidential campaign of Bain’s own Mitt Romney. 

For Romney’s second campaign for the presidency, Cass was a natural recruit. His studies at Harvard Law placed him just across the river from the candidate’s campaign headquarters. But Cass was drawn to Romney for more than a convenient bullet-point on his resume — the first vote he ever cast was for Romney’s gubernatorial bid a decade earlier.

Cass saw in Romney the ability to marry carefully crafted statutes with the pragmatic concerns of everyday Americans. And it was as Romney’s domestic policy director that Cass’ faith in the current GOP platform was permanently shaken.

The PowerPoint presentation on the importance of global markets that Cass prepared for his boss during the summer of 2011 was unimpeachable from the point of view of a libertarian economist. But, according to Romney, it papered over the defining foreign — and domestic — question of our time. 

“That’s fine,” Romney said of the briefing, according to Cass, “but what are we going to do about China?” 

In that moment, Cass said, the macroeconomic equations he had become so familiar with appeared insufficient, if not ridiculous — both as a means of understanding the national security and labor implications of a foreign partner unwilling to play by American rules, and as the sole end of public policy. But for many of his conservative colleagues, Cass said, questioning the tenets of limited government and minimal regulation was a bridge too far. 

“This had sort of become this inherited dogma,” Cass said, “and it had just been passed through and applied without any critical thinking from essentially an entire political movement.” 

The realization was “disturbing,” Cass said. “But also quite exciting to the extent it underscored the real opportunity and need to be doing a lot more work in that kind of area.”

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Oren Cass speaks with Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, at the Rebuilding American Capitalism forum in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 2023.

American Compass

What should conservatives want from capitalism?

After Romney’s election loss, Cass returned to Bain as a manager in the Boston and New Delhi offices but this time more skeptical of the international trade he was facilitating and more familiar with the levers of public policy. 

In a 2013 article in National Review, Cass first detailed an anti-poverty plan that would send welfare funds directly to the states and replace the earned income tax credit with a wage subsidy incentivizing work. The proposal caught the eye of Rubio, forming the basis of the senator’s much publicized legislation the following year and earning Cass the title of “general policy impresario of the emerging conservative consensus on fighting poverty.”

Having gotten a taste of his potential influence as a public intellectual, Cass swapped his consultancy career for a byline at the conservative Manhattan Institute, where he wrote prolifically on safety net reform, climate policy and the labor market. These essays were fleshed out in his 2018 book “The Once and Future Worker.”

Dedicated to his attorney grandpa, Cass’ book revolved around a single hypothesis: “That a labor market in which workers can support strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.”

By rejecting economic liberty as an end in itself and reframing free trade as a means to furthering traditional values like self-reliance, industry and the nuclear family, Cass lent his intellectual force to pounding a wedge between the decades-long union of social conservatism and economic libertarianism. 

“What is missing from our public debates is a distinctively conservative approach to economics,” Cass argued at the founding of his think tank American Compass in early 2020. 

According to Cass, Ronald Reagan’s coalition was ill-suited to the demands of a multipolar world and quite literally sold out the values it purported to prize by elevating efficiency over family formation, spiking Wall Street portfolios while hollowing out Rust Belt communities and hailing cheap foreign goods at the expense of gutting American productive capacity.  

The incentives created by the neoliberal regime, Cass said, “are just not well aligned with the kinds of things we need markets to do to promote flourishing families and communities and, ultimately, the well-being of the nation.”

While talk of whether the market is properly “aligned” with social goods may offend the followers of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, Cass says he’s prepared to slaughter any of the Chicago School’s sacred cows to create an economy that preserves conservative principles and protects against foreign domination.

The way Cass frames the ultimatum is nothing short of radical: If capitalism in its current iteration isn’t producing the outcomes conservatives want, it must be reformed or abandoned. 

“I think the correct role for conservatives to play is to insist that we actually need to find a way for capitalism to accomplish those things, as we know it can and as it has in the past,” Cass said. “If it can’t accomplish those things then I don’t think it has much claim to being the best economic system.”

In June, American Compass synthesized four years of work into “Rebuilding American Capitalism,” a policy handbook outlining legislative proposals to incentivize “productive markets” and “supportive communities.”

Specific policy prescriptions include: a tariff of at least 10% on all imports until the trade deficit is eliminated, a domestic content requirement of 50% for products that are critical to national security, an end to normal trade relations with China, a restriction on low-skill immigration, a monthly supplemental family income payment of $250–$350 per child, a prohibition on certain kinds of social media use by minors, an employer grant incentivizing workplace training and a clarification permitting sector-wide unions to form under federal law. 

But to some scholars, Cass’ vision for a renewed Republican economic agenda appears less like a map to 1950s-esque prosperity and more like a recipe for decreased civil liberties and increased hardship for the working class. 

“Everything would be more expensive,” said Norbert Michel, the director of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute’s Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives. “Our living standards would be lower and that’s why we’d be worse off.”

Michel’s concerns extend past the outcome of American Compass policies, though. It’s Cass’ assumptions about the role of government that really makes him uneasy.

“He gets to pick what that supposed public good is,” Michel said. “It has nothing to do with free market ideology. It has to do with power versus freedom. And he wants power over everybody else.”

Laying aside Cass’ willingness to use government to pick winners and losers in the market place — Michel thinks Cass’ entire economic narrative is based on a fundamental misreading of economic data.

Scott Winship, director of the Center on Opportunity and Social Mobility at the American Enterprise Institute — and one of Cass’ most consistently vocal critics — agrees. 

“I think, most importantly, he’s just wrong in much of his claims about the strength of the American economy and the extent to which it’s benefiting American families,” said Winship, who formerly served as executive director of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee under Utah Sen. Mike Lee. 

When they were both fellows at the Manhattan Institute, and while at AEI, Winship said he repeatedly demonstrated to Cass that the metrics he was using to measure the well-being of American families compared to past decades were unsound or misleading. Winship says wages have actually gone up for the average family and the cost of living has gone down — while Cass bases his theories on the opposite.

“All of these things have been pointed out to him many times by many people,” Winship said. “But he’s sort of willing to throw these important technical details overboard because they don’t support the narrative that he wants to tell.”

A narrative, Winship has pointed out, that seems to be at least partially funded by progressive nonprofits. In the past few years, American Compass has received at least $1 million from the Hewlett Foundation, which has consistently donated to abortion rights and climate initiatives, and Omidyar Network, which describes itself as “a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them.”

But, while some of Cass’ work is — like that of most D.C. interest groups — “scholarship trying to prove a point,” he has shown a unique, and important, ability to gauge the pulse of the American people, said Patrick Brown, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a member of American Compass’ advisory board. 

“The critiques from … a lot of conventional economists pointing out ‘There’s some methodological flaws here,’ I think they all have very valid points,” Brown said. “But ultimately, Oren is much better at telling stories that capture the sense that something’s gone wrong in American society and the American economy.”

Brown, a Deseret News contributor, said Cass has done more than almost anybody else to cast a new light on how conservatives should measure the success of the economy and to arm GOP lawmakers with the tools to take advantage of a latent majority driven by a multiethnic, working-class coalition. 

“He is offering a wide array of policies aimed at Americans without a college degree,” Brown said. “I think that’s where the Republican Party is headed and he is very well positioned to be the brain trust of that project for the next couple of decades.”

Building the future of conservatism

This past summer, Cass stood before a room of federal staffers, fellow think tankers and various D.C. dignitaries to make the case that American Compass was firmly on its way to charting the future course of American conservatism. 

Their rapid rise was due to the depth and honesty of their analysis winning out in the marketplace of ideas, Cass said, his voice echoing between the marble porticos of the Senate’s historic Kennedy Caucus Room. 

In attending that day’s program, which included messages from Sens. Vance, Rubio, Todd Young, R-Ind., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., audience members were witnessing something special, Cass said, because “if all goes well, this is where conservatism is headed.” 

The senators’ remarks echoed that conviction.

Young cited Cass’ role in convincing Republican senators to back the CHIPS and Science Act, which invested federal dollars in the construction of domestic semiconductor factories. 

Cotton, who partnered with American Compass to develop a bill to tax the wealthiest private universities to support blue-collar vocational training, said a working-class agenda was needed to transform the Republican Party’s “incipient majority into an actual and durable majority.”

Vance, whose senior policy adviser was a founding research director at American Compass, echoed Cotton, saying there is no path to a lasting Republican majority without a rethinking of “1980s and 1990s economic dogma.” Vance has made a name for himself doing just that, introducing bills to increase safety regulations for the railway industry, to hold executives accountable for bank failure and require taxpayer-funded inventions to be manufactured in the U.S.

Former President Donald Trump also seems to be taking cues straight from American Compass in his 2024 reelection campaign. He has called for a “universal baseline tariff,” identical to the one outlined in “Rebuilding American Capitalism,” of 10% on all imports from other countries. 

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, seen as the face of the GOP’s populist turn, has proposed a “Worker’s Agenda to Rebuild America,” which includes American Compass’s provision to end normal trade relations with China.

Cass cites these examples as evidence that the tide is turning in his favor — with his old mentor at the vanguard. 

Despite media characterizations of Romney as the “archetypal Reagan Republican” — and his reported animosity toward Trump, Vance and Hawley — Romney shares many policy priorities with self-styled Trumpists, Cass said. In fact, Romney spearheaded discussions on their favorite issues long before they entered the political scene.

“When I think about what were the quintessential Trump issues, those were Romney issues first,” Cass said. “On the China issue, he was the person on the right of center who was out in front on this stuff first. … And the same goes for immigration.”

Of all the GOP lawmakers, American Compass has found Romney to be “by far the most thoughtful and aggressive on pushing the party forward on really meaningful family policy,” Cass said, pointing to the Utah senator’s Family Security Act which mirrors American Compass’s recommendations providing a monthly cash benefit for working families of $350 for younger children and $250 for those in school.

“For more than a decade, Oren has been a trusted expert for how to best deal with some of the most complex challenges our country faces, from China to immigration. My team and I have also appreciated his counsel on family policy, helping pave the way for conservatives looking to support hardworking families,” Romney said in a statement to the Deseret News.

And if there’s one state heading in the direction indicated by American Compass, it’s Utah, Cass said. 

The office of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has worked with American Compass on legislation on vocational education and regulating social media for minors, according to Cass.

“I think Gov. Cox and his team have been real leaders on that,” Cass said. “And that’s something that’s starting to move out from Utah across the country.”

Rep. Tyler Clancy, an up-and-coming Utah state lawmaker, called Cass’ work at American Compass his “animating philosophy,” adding that “Once and Future Worker” was one of the most impactful books he read while at Brigham Young University. 

“I think what Oren Cass is trying to say is not that we should abandon the ideals or the principles that we know to be true,” Clancy said, “but are we going to govern based on a philosophy or we’re going to govern on reality?” 

Earlier this year, Clancy, R-Provo, formed the bipartisan Blue Collar Caucus and is currently advancing legislation to expand the state’s apprenticeship programs to facilitate meaningful work for those without college degrees. He is also planning to introduce legislation that would include the so-called “success sequence” in school curricula to teach students the importance of marriage.

“We want to make sure our economy strengthens families, and doesn’t necessarily split them apart, whether that’s through looking at our welfare programs, or looking at some of how the private market is structured,” Clancy said. 

At the beginning of December, Clancy hosted a Pathways to Purpose conference, attended by Cox and Brown, that focused on addiction, the family, loneliness and meaningful work. 

Amid a broader political realignment, Cass said these “populist concerns” will become more and more central to the American right.

When asked what his role will be in shaping that conversation, Cass said he hopes his arguments will function to expose tired talking points and reenergize the party of “zombie Reaganism” to once again become the party of ideas.

“I would like to dispose of the comfort with which a lot of people on the right have mouthed slogans and dogma,” Cass said.

But as to how his ideas are implemented across the post-Trump landscape, Cass said that’s up to those on the ground — far away from the Beltway bubble — to innovate and navigate the best policy paths to conservative outcomes. 

“If people feel accountable for actually grounding their thinking in arguments in real economics, in the reality of what is happening in America, and building from there,” Cass said, “then I’ll be happy regardless of what they build to.”