Paul Waldman has an interesting post this morning about ideas and the Republican Party, sparked by a great Jonathan Chait riff about Republicans and the New Deal. Waldman notes that Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to systematically adopt books such as Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, to the point of waiving them around in public. Waldman concludes:
Are Republican politicians just more interested in ideas? Not exactly. What they’re interested in is big, sweeping ideas. Not technocratic fixes, not proposals for a new agency, but ideas that upend the bases of how we think about politics and what we consider reasonable and insane...And eventually, a notion that starts off being self-evidently absurd—cutting taxes raises revenue, government should curtail spending during a recession—becomes accepted wisdom for one of our two major parties.
Waldman is right that there really isn’t any liberal equivalent to Shlaes or to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, which more or less does for Woodrow Wilson (and therefore Barack Obama) exactly what Shlaes does for FDR (and therefore Barack Obama). But I’d disagree that Republicans are therefore a “party of ideas.” I don’t think it’s right to say that recent New Deal revisionism has changed any Republican minds about anything. The obvious data point here is 1993, long before Shlaes, when Republicans opposed Bill Clinton’s stimulus bill. Or, for that matter, the New Deal.
No, what Republicans are getting from these books aren’t ideas. What they’re getting are talking points to justify their prior policy preferences. Don’t like stimulus? That’s okay; FDR caused the Depression. Don’t like regulations? That’s okay; Wilson was a fascist.
When Republicans do care about policy, they don’t turn to those types of books; they turn to actual ideas. That’s the story, more or less (and for better or worse), of neo-conservative foreign policy during the Bush years. It’s also the story about quite a few policies Republicans adopted during the heyday of conservative think tanks in the 1980s (yes, a bit of a stereotype, but one based on reality). Switching from those to Shlaes and Goldberg is a sign of the Gingrichism of the Republican Party – using “ideas” for flimflam and fraud instead of actual policy development – is hardly a sign of health.