In Search of Republican Reformers
February 20, 2013, 1:31 pm
In the last week there have been not one but four impressive pieces on fixing the Republican Party’s policy problem — one by Ramesh Ponnuru
in the pages of this newspaper, one by James Pethokoukis
in National Review, a lengthy essay by Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson
in Commentary, and a sketch of a right-of-center health care reform by Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Avik Roy
for Reuters. The proposals vary a bit, but there’s an essential unity to the ideas that they promote. To borrow Gerson and Wehner’s language, they’re all addressed to voters who “now regard the Republican Party as …wholly out of touch with ordinary Americans,” and they all take the obligations of governing more seriously than a lot of recent right-wing rhetoric has done. This, from the Commentary essay, is a solid formulation of the pieces’ common theme:
The Republican goal is equal opportunity, not equal results. But equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social achievement, for which government shares some responsibility. The proper reaction to egalitarianism is not indifference. It is the promotion of a fluid society in which aspiration is honored and rewarded.
A G.O.P. that heeded this admonition would be a vastly healthier animal, spending much less time on lost or pointless causes, and much more time on the issues where majorities tend to be (and deserve to be) made and broken at the moment. But it is important for would-be reformers to concede that as of right now, the Republican Party’s rising stars clearly prefer to adopt the rhetoric suggested by conservative policy thinkers without embracing much if any of the substance. The rhetorical shift — embodied by figures from Marco Rubio
and Bobby Jindal
to Ted Cruz
and Eric Cantor
— isn’t nothing; it’s a welcome and necessary step forward from the failed right-wing messaging of 2012. But politicians who talk up “libertarian populism” or “opportunity conservatism” or the “Rawlsian lens” and then end by calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment, hard money and a flat tax aren’t actually reforming the Republican Party; they’re just wrapping losing ideas in slightly smarter rhetoric than poor Mitt Romney was ever able to come up with.
Until the ideas themselves change, our politics is going to be stuck with the dynamic that Matt Yglesias describes all-too-accurately here
, in the context of the minimum wage debate — with Democrats proposing questionable policies that nonetheless address real challenges, Republicans declining to counter with serious policies of their own, and Democrats eventually winning the policy debate more or less by default (or else winning politically because the problems keep festering and the G.O.P. just looks out of touch). I don’t think that dynamic can last forever, for reasons I’ve elaborated on before
, and I’m hopeful that the 2016 election will be healthier for the right than 2012 turned out to be. But right now, the pattern of the last two political cycles
still holds: Real Republican reinvention is a cause in search of a standard bearer, and the right’s reformers are doing a far, far better job proposing solutions to the G.O.P.’s dilemmas (and the country’s problems) than they are persuading actual Republican politicians to embrace them.