Opinion

The Republican Party is becoming the party of ideas again

And it's amazing how quickly and quietly it's happened

Perhaps the worst sin of the GOP during the Obama era has been the party's lack of interest in serious, innovative policy.

Thanks to the notion that opposing the White House was enough of an agenda, and the inchoate enthusiasm of the Tea Party, the GOP, it seemed, was great at sound and fury but had no ideas. Anything the GOP did manage to propose was either an old idea from the '80s, just plain awful, or (most often) both.

If this narrative seems familiar, it's because left-of-center pundits have been hammering these ideas for years. And they were right.

But now, these same pundits are conspicuously silent about how the trend is reversing — and fast.

For years, a bunch of right-of-center reformers — including yours truly, but most prominently Yuval Levin, Reihan Salam, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru, and others — have been promoting innovative conservative policy ideas on every front: health care, taxes, unemployment, social policy, you name it.

Left-of-center writers seemed to think they could just dismiss these ideas out of hand because no actual lawmaker in the GOP was adopting them. And for awhile, that was true. But to these Democratic-friendly pundits, it wasn't just that the GOP didn't adopt these ideas. It's that the GOP couldn't adopt them. Why? These writers didn't put it in so many words in public, but basically their sense was that the problem was that Republicans are dumb. Republican politicians would never take on innovative policy ideas because their base is made up of a bunch of backward troglodytes and their paymasters are robber barons only interested in tax cuts. And in any case, to be a Republican is to have little interest in new ideas — or ideas, period.

That narrative was always way too shallow and convenient. But even if it was once kinda-sorta right, a few things have happened to upend it. First, the 2012 election exposed the fact that, to survive, the GOP really does need new ideas. Second, a man like Paul Ryan went from being a congressman little known outside the Beltway to a figure of national prominence to a spot on a national ticket by actually promoting interesting, new (and courageous) policy ideas.

Then Tea Party Sen. Mike Lee came out with a number of bills reprising key conservative reform ideas, in particular the idea of expanding the child tax credit.

But what's happening now is most interesting: Presidential candidates are competing on policy. Rand Paul has done it, scrambling lines on foreign policy and the security state, reaching across the aisle on sentencing reform, and calling into question the Drug War. Marco Rubio, previously best known for pushing the boring old idea of immigration reform, has adopted a key conservative reform plank, wage subsidies, and other interesting ideas like a regulatory budget. Meanwhile, Ryan still pushes his policy wagon, unveiling new initiatives to fight poverty.

Rubio in particular is fascinating. He is a political animal, not a policy wonk, and has been licking his wounds after his immigration push. Rubio has clearly concluded that in today's GOP, the way to gain political advantage and position himself for the presidential primaries is to propose new, serious, innovative policy ideas.

This change has been barely noticed, but it's really quite the shift. The GOP has gone from being a party that saw new ideas as suspect to one in which ideas are a candidate's key selling point.

Now, I said that the GOP is becoming the party of ideas. It's not there yet. A few presidential candidates do not a party make — and other serious contenders for the GOP nomination seem uninterested in having good ideas. But it's still a momentous shift, and the direction of the trend is unmistakable. The GOP is becoming the party of ideas again.

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