The American Conservative Union's newly named executive director is setting an ambitious strategy, hoping to motivate and provide tools to conservatives that will help them reverse the growth of government, the mounting national debt and the spreading poverty he believes threaten the foundation of America's freedoms.
"The very idea of America has not been in greater jeopardy since Woodrow Wilson was president," said Dan Schneider, who left a prestigious post advising Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, this month to run the ACU and its annual Conservative Political Action Conference. "With the failure of Obamacare, people are scratching their heads. Right now, the American public is again starting to remember what freedom is."
Mr. Schneider said he is impassioned about the opportunity to apply conservative values to solving America's burgeoning problems with poverty and government dependence.
"The reason I'm a conservative is because I care about the poor. And our ideas are better at helping people who are impoverished and people in need to find ways to become self sufficient," he told the Times.
Mr. Schneider believes the ACU, which hosts the largest annual gathering of conservatives in Washington each spring, is in a unique position to help conservatives reclaim the ideas agenda after years of failure.
For all its perceived influence, the American conservative movement has proved powerless to stop what its members see as an accelerating drift toward disaster. The next few years may be conservatism's last chance — or last gasp — because Americans will have grown accustomed to depending on government instead of themselves under President Obama's agenda, Mr. Schneider said in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.
At 47, with stints of practicing law and managing a private-sector mentoring firm under his belt, Mr. Schneider has spent much of his recent adult life in the obscure but critical role of helping top elected and appointed government officials such as Mr. McConnell and former Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao find competent, reliably conservative Republicans to fill important seats on federal boards and commissions.
"By law, there are over a hundred bipartisan boards and commissions with positions that the Senate minority leader gets to fill," Mr. Schneider said. "I looked for the most aggressive, effective conservatives who will fight against the Obama agenda within the belly of Obama's federal beast."
One of the most divisive issues for conservatives has been military intervention abroad, and Mr. Schneider has strong sentiments about where the movement should go.
"Nation-building at the point of a barrel never works," he said. "All you do is create more enemies, if that is your goal. When should we intervene? When our vital national security interests are at stake."
But that is the criterion that interventionists and noninterventionists profess to follow.
Mr. Schneider acknowledged that it is a "more difficult calibration to make today than it was before globalization," making it "trickier to find out if now is the time to act or not. But once you pull the trigger, you can't put the bullet back in the gun."
As for the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said that "in the Bush administration there was a belief we could promote democracy around the world. But not every society is open to democracy or capable of self-government. If the fundamental institutions within the society and fundamental beliefs are inconsistent with representational democracy, then how can a foreign power thousands and thousands of miles away force a government on people who are not interested in it?"
While his foreign and domestic policy inclinations appear to be in line with the ACU's traditional conservatism over the past decade, it's his managerial skills that the organization is counting on now.
In that regard, Mr. Schneider is a great believer that "personnel is policy." A conservative president or Cabinet officer — or perhaps advocacy group executive director — who uses key appointments as political rewards and appoints moderates to critical positions will wind up with a moderate policy.
At the beginning of President George W. Bush's administration, Mr. Schneider worked for Ms. Chao, who, he said, "understood that 'personnel is policy' principle better than any other Cabinet secretary" appointed by Mr. Bush.
"She and I would sit down probably two hours a day every day because she cared so much about finding the most effective conservatives to populate the positions at the Labor Department," he said. "She cared so much we were able to find the political appointees who ran that department better than any other department in the eight years of the Bush administration."
Just as important as policy and management skills is motivation. On that front, Mr. Schneider now feels driven to play a more direct role in helping the conservative movement reverse unpleasant realities.
One is that almost half of the U.S. population now pays no income taxes — up from 15 percent in the mid-1980s, while nearly three-fourths of discretionary federal spending goes to dependency programs — up from less than a quarter in the early 1960s, according to government figures and calculations by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Another reality Mr. Schneider and others on the right face is that despite their affirmations of traditional values, 40 percent of children in the United States are born to unmarried parents, up from 6 percent at the start of President Johnson's "war on poverty."
Single-parent, female-headed families are five times more likely to live in poverty than two-parent families. The government has taken the role of male provider for more and more young, unmarried mothers.
Troubled by these realities while serving his fifth year as a top adviser to Mr. McConnell, Mr. Schneider talked it over with his wife, who said she supported his taking a pay cut if necessary — it turned out he did not have to for the new job — to achieve something they both wanted: the advancement of conservatism at the grass-roots level. He then quietly applied for the ACU job.
From summer to early winter, Mr. Schneider and dozens of other gilt-edged resume holders endured repeated rounds of interviews with the ACU leadership. By Thanksgiving, ACU officials told him he had the job.
Manager and policymaker
In his first interview in the position, the first thing Mr. Schneider does is pull from his wallet a snapshot. It's not of him with one of the Republican heavyweights he has counseled over the years, but of his beaming 11-year-old son, Alec, standing proudly with a 30-aught-six rifle and, at his feet, a deer the youngster had just shot — his very first.
"Got time for a quick story?" Mr. Schneider asks. He then recounts when the teacher of one of his three sons asked for a drawing about the Revolutionary War but stipulated that the figures had to be shooting bananas, not guns. The son drew an American soldier with an AK-47 and a British soldier holding a banana.
"I thought your teacher said you weren't allowed to draw guns," Mr. Schneider told his son. The boy replied, "It isn't an AK-47, Dad; it's a banana."
"My boy instinctively understands freedom and when the left is trying to pursue an agenda that is against freedom," Mr. Schneider said with pride.
Asked if he saw himself as a manager or a policymaker at the ACU, Mr. Schneider replied, "Both."
ACU Chairman Al Cardenas and his board of directors will continue to make policy, "but I will contribute to policy," he added. "The executive director has to be both a manager and somebody passionate about freedom. You can't simply be the guy who signs the check stubs and make sure people are taking vacation time appropriately. You have got to be able to motivate the staff."
Mr. Schneider's intellectual leanings made it natural at one point in his career that he served as general counsel to the National Endowment for the Humanities under Chairman Bruce Cole, a conservative favorite. Mr. Schneider said his conservatism began with Enlightenment philosophers John Locke and Edmund Burke.
"Locke was the first to articulate the three pillars of freedom: life, liberty and property," he said. "Our religious liberty, the primacy of the governed over the government and the right to possess the fruits of our labor, find their intellectual voice in Locke's theory of individual rights."
Mr. Schneider said those "core rights" provided anchor points that made sense to him as a teenager when he struggled to define his political instincts.
"But Locke alone couldn't define the identity of the individual in society," he said. "Burke helped me understand where the soul of man fits in. He loathed tyranny and supported the American Revolution, but he also articulated the necessary tension between liberty and authority as well as the importance of holding to principles over gaining political advantage."
In other words, "principle over politics" — exactly what the American Conservative Union has been preaching since its founding 49 years ago.
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