This interview was originally published in July 2014.
As a 34-year-old, Lanhee Chen was already one of the most important Republicans in America. How did he become the guy Mitt Romney relied on “entirely for policy direction,” according to one adviser? By trading his three Harvard degrees for some practical campaign experience.
Though his man didn’t win the race, Chen, now 36, hasn’t slowed since. He’s crossed coasts from D.C. back to his home state of California, where he’s now writing and planning the future of conservative America at Stanford’s mecca for right-of-center thought leaders, the Hoover Institution in the heart of Silicon Valley. This self-proclaimed product of the ’90s (think Clinton, not Clueless ) can be found informally advising the likes of Texas Gov. Rick Perry and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
He sat down with OZY to talk about what excites him — other than Jeremy Lin coming to his hometown of L.A. We gabbed about evolving Republican identity, why you should still keep your eyes on Rand Paul, the “political iceberg” Silicon Valley is sailing toward … and his not-so-secret love of the Star Trek universe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Future of the GOP
Let’s start big. Tell us about the evolving shape of the Republican Party — and guess at its future for us.
The biggest challenge the Republican party has now is somewhat similar to the challenge the Democratic Party had in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when it was a party that was looking for an identity. We’re dealing with all these very, very fundamental debates about what it means to be a Republican. The reality is that most people, when they think of the Republican Party, tend to think of older white males. Since 2012 there has been a greater effort to redefine the party, broaden the image … I just think it is hard work. [But] I’m starting to see responsiveness, for example, in the Asian community that I work on because of my own ethnicity.
Which leaders should we keep an eye on?
In terms of economic policy, keep an eye on how Rand Paul does. He is a really unique leader. He has the ability to appeal to a lot of folks who are not traditional Republicans. Even though, socially, he has relatively conservative views for the most part … I think his success — or lack of success — in 2016 will answer [the] question about whether there will be a movement toward more nontraditional Republicans.
Silicon Valley: The Titanic ?
What are your thoughts on your new ’hood?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the huge disconnect between Washington and Silicon Valley. I ask every entrepreneur I meet: “What is it about Washington that frustrates you? What is it about Washington that excites you?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, they will say to me, “Nothing about Washington excites me and pretty much everything about Washington frustrates me!”
Are any companies in the Valley interacting well with Washington, from your perspective?
You would think that some of the gap would be bridged from companies like Facebook and Google and Uber that are relatively more mature in the life cycle of ventures. Yet they have been forced to play the Washington game in some ways. They spend a lot of money on lobbyists. They are really good at thinking pre-emptively on issues they care about — for example, with Google and self-driving cars and what that means on the regulatory side…
I think the big companies have the resources to devote to these problems, and they really tend to be focused on the specific issues that impact their businesses, rather than the more general question of whether regulation is effective or not. So, for example, Uber is intensely focused on local barriers to entry in markets where they are looking to serve or expand. Facebook is focused on privacy questions. At some point there will be a very grand conflict between Washington and Silicon Valley. It hasn’t happened yet … It’s like the Titanic is heading for the iceberg.
What are some signs of that brewing trouble?
Net neutrality and privacy are issues that are of deep concern … [and] the rise of crypto-currency, like bitcoin . At some point, who jumps in? Is it the FBI? Is it the Treasury? If I were an investor, I would say there is actually potential here [with Bitcoin] to make a quick billion or two … but you have a technology that clearly can be aiding and abetting illicit activity … and the notion that the Treasury or the FBI or somebody else wouldn’t step in is ludicrous!
How do you see this immigration debate playing out?
A lot of people don’t understand this, but for most people in the so-called base of the Republican Party, immigration is not about economics. It is a very visceral reaction to what America should be about. That’s why all these arguments that we hear, which are very valid, that come from economists and people like me who try and intellectualize the issue … they fundamentally miss that most Americans don’t care about what the economic impacts of immigration are. [If] they perceive a threat to what they view America to be, they are going to be against it.
In terms of the substance of the debate, I don’t think it’s that bad of an idea to pursue a step-by-step approach as long as we address the question of the 12 million people who are here illegally … It is politically very damaging for Republicans to not address this. And on top of that, from a human compassion point of view, it is also problematic.
What are some of the wildest ideas you’ve heard to fix the immigration problem?
I have heard some interesting ideas; for example, my colleague [Edward] Lazear at the Hoover Institution has this market-based idea that we should be pricing visas based on essentially how much people are worth to the economy. If they are willing and able to pay that amount, they should get the visa. I think it is an interesting idea. It will never happen politically …
Why you should care
Because chances are good that Mitt Romney’s former chief policy adviser knows his party well — and when he conjectures on its future, we all better listen up.