“So, if you can believe it, I actually served in the first Obama administration,” admits Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. The Yankee Institute is a Connecticut-based think tank that has garnered praise from the Heritage Foundation’s Stephen Moore and tangled with unions over unsustainable pensions and salaries. It promotes free markets and limited government.
Before you ask when Carol had her Road to Damascus experience, let me explain: Barack Obama wasn’t President of the United States. He was president of The Harvard Law Review, of which Carol was also a member. The year after Obama served as president of the Law Review, Carol became the Law Review’s first female managing editor.
The previous managing editor had been easy going. “Staff members often got off from doing their work with excuses so flimsy that an intra-Review humor publication satirized one as ‘I can’t do this assignment because my grandmother’s goldfish died,” Carol laughingly recalls.
“One of the things I am most committed to doing at Yankee is trying to make public policy relevant and accessible to normal people – and maybe even a little bit ‘fun.’”
This was not Carol. “I came in with the idea that we were all pretty lucky to be there,” she recalls. One woman demanded she be allowed to shirk a proofreading assignment. She was a repeat offender. Carol believed that, if you didn’t do the work, you didn’t deserve the glory of being on the Law Review. “I suggest you take the free bagel out of your mouth, stop using the free copy machine, leave the building and take this place off your resume.” The other woman said, “Let’s take this outside.” Carol went outside with her. “She started doing the dance of rage and telling me how much everyone hated me. Luckily, one of the guys at the Legal Aid Society, who was the friend of a friend, saw what was going on and called the Harvard Police.”
The incident ended quickly, with no damage done, but Barack Obama, who was no longer president of the Review, and with whom Liebau always had a cordial relationship, heard about it. “He came back to the Review and took me out on the back stoop and said, ‘You know, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,’” Liebau recalls. Liebau explained to the future president she’d tried honey, it didn’t work, and now she was trying vinegar.
When Liebau regards something as important, she is an immovable object. But don’t get the impression that she’s not fun. She is the fount of amusing stories that show she doesn’t take herself too seriously. That’s how Carol became a friend and sometimes stand-in for radio host Hugh Hewitt, for example.
Carol was listening to Hewitt’s drive-time radio show years ago, when he quoted a Los Angeles Times piece saying that religious believers were ignorant and educated people simply could not deal with them.
Hewitt asked educated religious believers to write the author of the piece and politely inform him of his error. Hewitt asked for copies of those letters.
“I met my husband at, if you can believe it, Dark Ages Weekend,” Carol says.
Liebau took up the Hewitt challenge. “I identified myself as the knuckle-dragging Christian who was uneducated and unsophisticated. And thanked him for explaining why he could never take me seriously,” Carol recalls. (The knuckle-dragging Christian did drop her educational credentials, which included a B.A. from Princeton. Carol, by the way, describes herself as “an orthodox Episcopalian,” an increasingly exotic species. Liebau recently retweeted a tweet from the Babylon Bee that said, “Episcopalians confused by strange book Trump brought to church.”)
Hewitt loved her letter. “I think Hugh got a kick out of it because he had clerked for the D.C. Circuit, as I had, and he had also been educated at Harvard, though as an undergraduate, and he reached out to me.” It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. “We had lunch, and Hugh and his wife have been incredibly kind to my whole family for years. And he has mentored me, offered me opportunity, helped me advance. He’s just been wonderful,” Carol says.
Hugh Hewitt is not the only famous conservative Carol has just stumbled upon. She grew up in Alton and St. Loui, Mo. In Alton her neighbors were the Schlafly family, as in Phyllis. “My mother and Mrs. Schlafly were Goldwater Girls in 1964, and my father played tennis with Mr. Schlafly every morning,” Carol says. “The Schlaflys had a tennis court at their house, my father was a doctor and an avid tennis player. And, unless the water was frozen in the birdbath, when my father got up–he was a very early riser and worked very hard–they played tennis.”
In the late eighties, Liebau was a student at Princeton University, where she was editorial chairman of The Daily Princetonian. She wrote a regular column entitled “Right of Way,” and though she got along well with her colleagues at the newspaper, Liebau made a lot of people on campus angry.
“The response,” she says, “was fairly little things, but, you know, when you’re in college, everything is dramatic. But I did get some nasty calls on my voicemail and my message board ripped down and the air let out of my car tires, things like that. But you know, it was okay. The experience taught me that, if you want to have a voice, which I did, there are going to be people who disagree with you. And I suppose that’s their right too.”
“I don’t want to sound delusional,” Liebau replies. “But I do see Connecticut being much more purple than its national reputation would suggest.”
After law school, Liebau came to Washington, where she clerked for Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit—and met the Independent Women’s Forum. She attended IWF luncheons at the Gibson Dunn law firm, and became a part of IWF’s early history. “I was fortunate enough that [two of IWF’s founders] Ricky Silberman and Barbara Bracher, who became Barbara Olson, took me under their wing,” she says. “I just got to sort of tag along and be part of things, as IWF came into existence. As someone who was just obviously very young, 25, it was my first glimpse into how highly effective women get things done.”
Polishing political skills, Liebau was a legislative assistant to Senator Christopher S. “Kit” Bond and later worked as a consultant to the senatorial campaigns of John D. Ashcroft, both from her home state.
Liebau didn’t want to be one of those lawyers who have never practiced law. So, she went home to St. Louis and joined a law firm. She hated being a lawyer, hated having to bill in six-minute increments. But she did have one nice encounter during the otherwise unfulfilling stint at the law firm. It was on a trip to Florida.
“I met my husband at, if you can believe it, Dark Ages Weekend,” Carol says. It was the second Dark Ages Weekend, which was invitation only and created by Jay Lefkowitz and Laura Ingram to counter the invitation-only Renaissance Weekend, which attracted top liberals to New Year panels and discussions at Hilton Head in South Carolina. That year Dark Ages (which was renamed Restoration Weekend) was held at the at Biltmore Resort in Phoenix and also for the New Year’s holiday. Carol thought Jack Liebau was just inviting her out because of the date—who doesn’t want to have a date New Year’s Eve. “And then I got back to the law firm, and I found this big bouquet of 12 roses and all the lawyers I worked for gave me a hard time. But then one thing led to another, and here I am,” says Carol. The couple has 12-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
“I wanted to push back against the idea that it was somehow ‘empowering’ for young girls to transform themselves into sex kittens.”
Carol and Jack moved to Pasadena, where he had an investment management firm, and she wrote commentary and guest-hosted for Hewitt. In 2007, Liebau published a book entitled Prude: How the Sex Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!). “It just seemed like a very important topic that, at the time, was not being discussed in more secular conservative circles – and as a woman who had had very positive relationships with men, I wanted to push back against the idea that it was somehow ‘empowering’ for young girls to transform themselves into sex kittens,” Carol says.
In 2011, Carol and Jack moved to Connecticut because of Jack’s business, and Carol was hired to lead the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She and Jack don’t know what the future will hold (they both lament Connecticut’s high taxes). Founded in 1984 and one of the oldest free-market, state-oriented think tanks, Yankee has focused on government pensions (most recently on teacher pensions, but not exclusively).
Yankee has done ground-breaking work on the understated—and unsustainable—teacher pensions in Connecticut, which are the result of union negotiating.
“Everything, really, in our state that’s wrong comes back to the dominance of these government unions,” Liebau argues. “They are responsible for these underfunded pensions, which then end up eating up an inordinate amount of revenue.” Yankee also did research on government versus private sector salaries. Workers in the public sector earn 25 to 46% more than private sector employees with similar jobs, skills, and educations with the same skills, same education, the same work experience. These fixed costs are eating up an ever-greater amount of the state budget.
“And so, rather than get ahold of these fixed costs, these pensions and salaries, what they have done is raised taxes, again and again on affluent people, and this has driven many out of the state, eroding the tax base,” Liebau maintains.
“Now, what they are doing is raising things like sales taxes, property taxes. They’re taking a bite out of the middle class and making the state inhospitable to them. And they end up with less in the way of discretionary funds to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in our state who truly need the help.”
Carol has a mission that is—well—pure Carol. “One of the things I am most committed to doing at Yankee is trying to make public policy relevant and accessible to normal people – and maybe even a little bit ‘fun.’ For example, we helped beat tolls – the governor’s top priority – by coming up with a cartoon ‘toll troll’ and putting a giant, inflatable ‘toll troll’ on the Capitol lawn,” she explains.
We wanted to know what it is like to work for lead a free-market think tank in a blue state?
“I don’t want to sound delusional,” Liebau replies. “But I do see Connecticut being much more purple than its national reputation would suggest. First of all, and this has always been encouraging to me, that fundamental, flinty, New England psyche and sense of independence is still present. There’s a strong tradition of local government. That’s something we can build on.”
Carol Liebau is certainly doing her part to rebuild an appreciation for limited government and free enterprise, in a state that’s lucky to have her.