February 18, 2013
President Ronald Reagan (Ira Schwarz/Associated Press)
President Ronald Reagan (Ira Schwarz/Associated Press)

Conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru has a pretty good op-ed in the New York Times today urging Republicans to move on from the details of Reaganomics — and to use the spirit of Ronald Reagan’s policies to inspire them to embrace conservative economic and domestic policies appropriate to the 2010s, not the 1980s.

I think a lot of his ideas could be part of a conservative policy revival. Ponnuru is wrong, however, to say that Republican policy ideas are stuck in the 1980s. It’s worse than that.

The problem with Republicans today on public policy isn’t that they’re stuck in the 1980s; it’s that they’ve given up entirely. More often than not, what passes for Republican “policy” is just symbolic, not substantive. Think, for example, about the big GOP rollout of the spring, a balanced budget amendment — which wouldn’t be much in terms of substantive policy even if it had a chance to pass, which it obviously doesn’t. Or think of their inability (still!) to come up with an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Again, it’s not that Republican health policy is stuck in the 1980s; it’s that there is nothing that could really be called Republican health policy. Or, to move away from Ponnuru’s topics to national security, there’s the frenzy over Benghazi, Libya, that (as Kevin Drum points out) somehow never quite is about anything, or what seems to be purely symbolic attacks on Chuck Hagel.

The first step out of the policy wilderness for Republicans, then, is for them to decide that developing substantive public policy ideas is a good idea at all. If the way to do that is to attribute it to Ronald Reagan, well, if it works then there’s nothing wrong with it. I hope so; the nation could really use a political party that advances well thought out conservative policy options. There hasn’t been one of those in years.