The Wooing of a Washington Wonk

Stephen Moore paced the hallways of the Fox News studio one recent afternoon thinking about guest lists. The 55-year-old economist, fresh from a round of live interviews trashing Obamacare and extolling the wonders of hydraulic fracturing, makeup pancaked on his bespectacled face, was co-hosting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that night at a private dinner at the 21 Club to introduce the 2016 hopeful to New York’s GOP elite — an event that would soon become very public thanks to a certain former mayor’s Obama-bashing.

But Moore was by no means sold on Walker. Even as he was hosting the Republican Midwesterner-of-the-moment, he was planning another party back in Washington for Sen. Rand Paul. Less than a week after his glitzy New York dinner, he would gather several GOP economic eggheads for a steak and wine supper at a Capitol Hill townhouse to discuss taxes and monetary policy with Paul, and he still needed to work on the guest list.

Stepping into a quiet corner of the network’s green room, Moore pulled out his Samsung flip phone to connect with Paul’s Senate legislative director. “Who’d Rand want at this dinner?” they asked each other, kicking around a short list of potential boldface names, including former George W. Bush White House adviser Lawrence Lindsey and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.

“I do feel like I’m holding down two jobs right now,” Moore would tell me later. “It’s a bit of a grind, but it’s also a labor of love.”

What had turned the supply-sider into a party planner was a quadrennial mating ritual that shapes the presidential cycle even before most candidates have officially announced: Moore and dozens of other ambitious wonks are shopping for a White House hopeful to call their own even as the candidates themselves are searching for policy experts who can make them look smart and burnish often-thin resumes.

But there are only so many great jobs to go around — and a limited number of wonks who will land them.

“There are very few people who are policy rich, know the stuff, managerially capable and mentally ill enough to take that job,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former Congressional Budget Office director who ran Republican John McCain’s policy shop in 2008. “They are a certain kind of nuts.”

All of which makes Moore’s schedule these days like speed dating at a think tank symposium — albeit with better menus and an open bar. In January, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former New York Gov. George Pataki attended another private dinner Moore co-hosted at the 21 Club in midtown Manhattan. Within two weeks of his meeting in New York with Walker, Moore would talk monetary policy with Paul in Washington, sit on a panel with Carly Fiorina at the Conservative Political Action Conference, introduce Walker at a luncheon for about 20 donors in Palm Beach, Florida, and begin to pencil in events with nearly every other prospective candidate from long-shot Dr. Ben Carson to presumptive front-runner Jeb Bush.

For Moore, a paid 2016 campaign job could be the topper to a Washington career that’s placed him at the center of the conservative cause but never within a candidate’s inner circle. Such a job would mean he’d have to take a leave of absence as chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, cancel his Fox News contract and stop the lucrative paid speaking trips that bring him to luxury locales from South Florida to Curaçao. But he thinks it might be worth it.

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