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Baby Kristol

Yuval Levin is the right’s new favorite intellectual

Illustration by Jim Stoten

Paul Ryan works in a man cave in the Longworth House Office Building. It is bedecked with the paraphernalia of the football teams he loves, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Green Bay Packers. Last year, I visited the lair of the Republican Party’s philosopher prince to ask about his own personal philosopher, a 35-year-old named Yuval Levin.

As the editor of a dense journal called National Affairs (circulation: 10,000), Levin has acquired a reputation as the conservative movement’s great intellectual hope. More precisely, he’s known as an expert rhetorician, with a knack for taking Republican positions that poll poorly and repackaging them. “He’s a popularizer,” Karl Rove tells me. “He knows how to take these concepts and make them something people can understand and get their hands around.”

This skill has made him a darling of The New York Times’ house conservatives. Hardly a month passes without either David Brooks or Ross Douthat citing Levin’s work. But it’s also the reason that Paul Ryan has leaned heavily on Levin to sell his famous budgets. As Ryan explains it, “[Levin] does a very good job of articulating why these are good ideas and the right way to go and how they’re philosophically connected with one another and consistent.”

This role has acquired an outsized importance in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s reelection. His body of work is, after all, one prolonged attempt to solve the great conservative political problem of the times: that austerity, the core of the Republican agenda, simply isn’t very popular, especially when it comes to cuts to beloved entitlement programs. Levin, however, doesn’t propose challenging GOP orthodoxy; he simply tries to make it sound less radical. That’s not the most high-minded project. But that’s the job of the state-of-the-art conservative intellectual, more operative than philosopher.

Yuval Levin is frumpy—and not just by Washington standards. With his calculator wristwatch, balding pate, and white undershirt always peeking through his oxfords, he is, as his friend the writer Reihan Salam puts it, “a young fogey.”

Levin was born in Haifa, Israel. When he was eight, his family emigrated to what they hoped would be the economic promised land of New Jersey. His best English teacher was “The Cosby Show.” He was soon drawn to George Will columns and the contrarian allure of modern American conservatism. One conservative myth especially entranced him.

That myth goes something like this: Once upon a time, back in the dark days of the mid-’70s, conservatism was lost. It had won over white working-class voters, but lacked the brainy refinement to succeed on a national scale. Salvation came in the form of New York Jewish intellectuals, the small circle of original neoconservatives, who decamped from their little magazines to guide the Reagan Revolution.

From an early age, Levin sought out the heroes of this tale. After graduating from American University, he enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought—a cradle of neoconservative thinking. He buried himself in the writings of the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish thinker Edmund Burke. Levin’s dissertation, which will be published later this year, is a form of intellectual autobiography—a reflection of how Levin likes to view himself. Burke was temperamentally moderate, a true conservative who believed that it was immodest and unwise to radically remake a society.

But even before he finished his dissertation, Levin found himself itching to influence real-life outcomes. “People studying politics aren’t particularly interested in politics,” he tells me. He found himself following his professor, Leon Kass, from Hyde Park to the staff of George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, which guided debates over stem-cell research and human cloning.

Despite his youth, Levin had been anointed the next great neoconservative. And in 2009, Bill Kristol gave him a title to match those expectations. Four years earlier, Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, had shuttered his legendary journal, The Public Interest. But with Obama’s victory, Kristol the Younger found himself longing to revive his dad’s publication. “The end of the Bush administration showed that conservatism wasn’t strong politically and even intellectually,” Kristol says. So he followed the old dictum: When intellectuals have nothing left to do, they start a magazine. Levin was appointed the editor of the new effort, National Affairs.

The old Public Interest prided itself on its heterodoxy—the way it thrashed Great Society liberalism, while not fully embracing Barry Goldwater conservatism. That was Irving Kristol’s great contribution to conservatism. He advised conservatives to quit their rants against Social Security and other vestiges of the New Deal and urged them toward supply-side economics; he took the rage stirred by George Wallace and refined it into a critique of 1960s liberalism. He helped save the movement from its self-destructive id.

National Affairs aspires to the same spirit of intellectual independence. Its articles typically point toward contemporary conservatism’s failure to address socioeconomic immobility. “People like to live in a country that takes care of needy and vulnerable people—that’s the kind of community we want to be a part of,” Levin explains. It’s a style that has earned him the highest praise any aspiring neoconservative can receive. Paul Ryan gushes, “He is the Irving Kristol of our time. The Irving.”

But what does it mean to be the Irving Kristol of our time? Like Kristol, Levin doesn’t want to explicitly demolish the welfare state. But he is also deathly afraid of debt. If the nation doesn’t address its fiscal crisis now, Levin argues, it will face a much larger one later—a state of bankruptcy that will fulfill the libertarian dream of crushing government. This premise leads to his counterintuitive conclusion: To save the welfare state in the future, it must be drastically pared back in the present. “We do not face a choice between the liberal welfare state on one hand and austerity on the other,” Levin has written. “Austerity and decline are what will come if we do not reform the welfare state.”

This is rhetorically innovative, to be sure. It’s a far cry from Grover Norquist’s plea to drown government in the bathtub, or Mitt Romney’s complaints about the 47 percent. Levin, indeed, has spoken sympathetically of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” His arguments about debt sound as if they belong to the sensible center of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson.

But while he may not mouth the rhetoric of the Tea Party, he largely agrees with it. Take his beloved policy, a Medicare reform plan called “Premium Support.” That sounds benign enough. But Levin (and Ryan) want to replace Medicare with (essentially) vouchers—giving seniors a fixed sum of money to buy health insurance in a lightly regulated market. When Levin contrasts this program to Obamacare, he argues, “One of them wants fifteen people to make decisions about what things cost, and another wants forty million people to make decisions about what they want.” Grover Norquist couldn’t have said it any better.

Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that Levin follows the Republican Party line on just about every issue of note—from taxes to education to abortion. It’s true that he would prefer a more environmentalist stance, but he quickly adds, “It’s not something I spend a lot of time on.” As Salam tells me, “[Levin] believes that the public-spirited person is not the maverick, but helps their team be smarter and better.”

Even as Irving Kristol helped save conservatism, he cherished his status as an intellectual. Levin is not Kristol and willing to admit it: “I am hyper-patriotic, and I care about the Republican Party. I’m certainly very different from Irving Kristol in this sense. I was always struck by Irving’s ability—detached is not the right word, he cared about the country—but he had a little distance.” Levin adds, “That’s a good attitude, but I think it makes sense to be engaged and attached. And whether it makes sense or not, it’s where I am.”