Ross Douthat tells it like it is in an important blog post today. After surveying a few policy suggestion pieces by conservative writers, he doesn’t hold back:
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).
That’s an absolutely accurate assessment of the situation.
The big problem with the Republican Party isn’t that Republicans have been lousy at spin (although they are) or that there is something inherently wrong about conservative ideology (whether one agrees with it or not), but that there’s just a tremendous policy gap between Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, it’s more than just a case of Democrats having coherent, plausibly viable policy suggestions and Republicans not having any on issue after issue; it’s that Republican politicians (and many in the GOP-aligned media) don’t seem to notice, or care.
Yes, I said it was an important blog post; I hope that Douthat will go ahead and make the same point in a column. It’s important because Douthat, who has one of the most impossible jobs around as a New York Times conservative columnist, believes that he can get away with this harsh of a criticism of Republican rising stars without risking his conservative credentials. If he’s right, that’s good news; of course, the bad news is that it has to be said in the first place.
There’s really nothing about conservatism, either in general or in its Republican Party Goldwater-influenced version, that makes plausibly viable policy impossible. Ronald Reagan ran on a policy-rich platform; even George W. Bush did. That Republicans have become significantly less substantive than Bush in 2000 is an embarrassment to them, and bad for the nation; it’s good to have a highly visible conservative voice say so.