When April Ponnuru left a Capitol Hill job to become policy director of the YG Network at the end of 2013, her “first step was to organize a brainstorming session,” as a glowing New York Times magazine profile of Ponnuru and other prominent, young GOP intellectuals recalls.
The New York Times showed Ponnuru and other YGs (it stands for Young Guns) gathered around a table in a drawing room at Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason–an earlier YG of sorts, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and advocate of the causes of religious liberty and freedom of speech.
With their crumpled balls of paper strewn all over Mr. Mason’s pristine floor, the newer YGs–whose organization was established in 2011 by former Eric Cantor aide John Murray, and is now called the Conservative Reform Network–look like they may be creating the intellectual fodder for a new revolution, but one steeped in the ideals exemplified by Mason and other early American leaders. In a way, that is precisely what they are doing.
Indeed, the upshot of Ponnuru’s famous brainstorming session was a seminal book, Room to Grow: Conservative Reforms for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class, that set forth the ideas of this group of young thinkers, who have been dubbed “reformocons.” The introduction acknowledges that these reformers recognize that “today’s challenges won’t be met by yesterday’s solutions.”
Room to Grow includes provocative essays by, to give a partial list, Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner, James Capretta, Scott Winship, Michael Strain, Brad Wilcox, James Pethokoukis, Ramesh Ponnuru (who is married to April), and IWF’s Carrie Lukas. The book stirred up great interest. Some critics saw it as warmed-over material or, worse, as veering from conservative principles, while others hailed it as a fresh and sparkling manifesto for reform-minded conservatives. David Brooks of the New York Times called it “the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.”
Perhaps the place to start is by asking Ponnuru a basic question: Just what is reform conservatism anyway? “Reform conservatism is merely the application of conservative principles to the challenges we confront today,” April replies. “It is a response to a number of inadequacies in the conservative agenda: Too many conservative politicians have left unaddressed pressing issues that are ripe for conservative reform—like the higher-education cartel and strict job licensing regulations.”
“Conservatives in recent years,” she continues, “have not been offering an agenda that speaks to most voters’ contemporary concerns. Reformers seek, in part, to fill the ‘caring gap’ that conservative politicians have struggled with in recent elections.”
Okay, but are you reformocons being true to traditional conservative values–you know, low taxes, cutting government programs, and reducing the power of the federal government?
“Of course we want to cut taxes!” April replies. “And we want to reduce the size and scope of government, too. We’re conservatives through and through.”
She adds, in what may be the best summary of why reformocons often stand out as a bit different from the rest of their party, “We have to stop talking about the economy in abstract terms and instead start talking more about wages—about making paychecks stretch further by cutting the cost of living. But that means you have to have policies that do that.
“I think conservatism could become more popular across-the-board by adopting a reformist message,” she adds, “but it might help even a little more with women voters. An economic message that does not only speak to women as though we are all aspiring entrepreneurs, but recognizes our diversity as full and part-time wage-earners, stay-at-home mothers, mothers working from home, and mothers working outside the home, and talks at least as much about helping people take care of their families, will probably go over better with women.”
An adviser to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign, Ponnuru is a veteran of Capitol Hill who got her start in Washington as a research assistant at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, which now houses her friends and fellow reformocons Levin and Wehner, and other conservative heavyweights such as EPPC president Ed Whelan and columnist Mona Charen. But Ponnuru didn’t think she was cut out to be a scholar, and so she decamped for a taste of the heady politics of Capitol Hill. After a year working for a freshman legislator, she landed a job with the then newly-elected House Majority Whip Roy Blunt. “I got an email on my honeymoon that I got the job. That was my first real break in Washington, and for that I will be eternally grateful to now-Senator Blunt,” Ponnuru recalls.
Blunt put her in charge of social issues and conservative coalitions, and over the course of the next four years Ponnuru tried her hand at everything from tax policy to welfare reform to speechwriting to coalition building. “It was a great experience, and a lot of work,” she remembers. Living on Capitol Hill with her husband and eighteen-month-old daughter, Ponnuru was beginning to feel ready for something new. As a new mother, she also wanted a bit more flexibility.
“It just so happened that National Review was looking for someone to help raise its profile in Washington,” she says, “and so they hired me as their Vice President. I spent a little over a year there, until Washington Editor Kate O’Beirne convinced me to join her as her number two at National Review Institute, the magazine’s non-profit arm. It didn’t take much convincing, to be honest. Anyone who has the chance to work for Kate O’Beirne and doesn’t drop everything to do it is a fool! Kate is one of a kind—sharp, insightful, funny, generous—hands-down the most important mentor and one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
When Roy Blunt was elected to a leadership position in the Senate, he offered Ponnuru a job. “It was a great experience, and I enjoyed the jack-of-all-trades role I was able to play there—including a detail of several months working for the Republican Leader’s office,” she says. But Kate O’Beirne called again. O’Beirne was now working as an adviser to YG Network. She wanted Ponnuru to join her as the fledgling organization’s policy director. Ponnuru accepted the job. “I saw it as an opportunity to collaborate on a new, creative conservative policy agenda to address the concerns of middle-class voters,” she says.
While she is an advisor to the Jeb Bush presidential campaign, where she works primarily on domestic policy and conservative coalitions, Ponnuru maintains her role at CRN. Over the next few months, CRN will release a series of nineteen short briefing books as part of Room to Grow: A Series. They will deal with how to encourage start-ups, make higher education affordable, promote energy development while protecting the environment, reform the criminal justice system, retirement, and a variety of other issues. “They’re gorgeous books—all free of charge—and I’m proud to be publishing them,” she says. The first installment is currently available in print and online.
Ponnuru’s path to the hurly-burly of politics and policy began in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she grew up as one of four children to an entrepreneurial father who ran his own small architectural firm and a mother who was a homemaker “and a terrific cook.” Amber Schwartz, IWF Director of Outreach, is Ponnuru’s sister. It sounds like an all-American upbringing with an emphasis on graciousness and ideas.
“My parents entertained a lot and we always had people over talking late into the evenings,” she recalls, “and I was one of those kids who stuck around the dinner table listening to the adults. I was captain of the debate team at my large public high school, and applied to only one college, Liberty University (which was strongly encouraged by my evangelical parents) because it had a terrific debate team. I graduated from college in three years, and headed off to the University of London for a Master’s degree in legal and political theory, which I completed a year later. At the ripe age of 22, I moved to Washington, got married at 24, and had my first baby at 27. It seems like a bit of a whirlwind in retrospect.
“My parents taught me a lot of things that are tremendously important—about love and faith and family and work—but they also taught me some practical things, like how to comfortably entertain people in my home and how to celebrate the important things in life, even if they seem small to others,” Ponnuru says. “I’m grateful to have had Southern parents who knew the value of hospitality and the celebration of everyday life, and who passed those traditions on to their children.
“I wasn’t a terribly conscientious student—always rushing to finish a homework assignment or a term paper or cram before an exam—so I didn’t really learn how to work hard until I got my first job. Now with a husband, two kids, and two jobs, I’ve never worked harder in my life. Washington is a pretty fast-paced town, and I know I’ve chosen a competitive field. It’s a great time in my life. Nonetheless, I’m hoping my next decade might be a bit less exhausting!”
She and her husband Ramesh Ponnuru, an editor at National Review, whom she met at a wedding in 2000, have two daughters, Mary Lakshmi, 10, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Vimala, 5. She is asked for some advice on work-life balance for IWF readers. “Tips for work-life balance?” she jokes. “I would love some! I’m still trying to figure it out. Ramesh and I have five employers between us. I know that I couldn’t do half of what I do without the support of my amazing husband, sister, and parents. So my advice is to marry an incredibly supportive, patient guy and then convince most of your family to move across the country and settle within a five-mile radius of you. (Yes, I did those things.)”
And the Washington policy community is glad that she did!