First a story: Not so long ago, I chatted with a top Senate GOP staffer who had seen me mentioned in a Politico story about the divide between conservative wonks and Republican politicians. (As reporter Jonathan Martin put it, “Conservative thinkers are increasingly agitated that, four months after a second straight presidential drubbing, GOP officeholders are not taking bold steps to bring a 1980s-style Republican platform into the 21st century.”)
Here’s roughly what the staffer told me: “It’s not that we don’t know about your ideas or understand them. We just don’t think they’re any good.”
Which brings me to Jonathan Chait’s mini-profile of Josh Barro in The Atlantic. While Barro “believes American politics needs a party that can advocate compassionate, market-oriented alternatives to Democratic policies,” the Bloomberg columnist doubts the GOP is anywhere close to being that alternative. The Republican Party isn’t ready for reform. Folks such as David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, and me are kidding ourselves. Barro has concluded the “pro–middle class conservative project is doomed.”
I’ve never met Barro, though once we debated on the BBC about, of all things, the viability of the US government minting a trillion-dollar platinum coin to avoid default. I read his stuff, however, several time a week. And given the anecdote at the start of this post, I certainly understand his attitude. The House GOP’s two big ideas — balancing the budget and stripping the Fed of its employment mandate — aren’t huge confidence builders, either.
But do I agree with Barro’s gloomy, fatalistic assessment? Or to frame it another way: Will the 2016 Republican presidential nominee — or even any top candidates — offer anything different than the 2012ers — other than more middle-class friendly messaging? I focus on the presidential candidate because it’s going to take a presidential candidate to really change the conversation among Washington Republicans. (And, of course, Democrats are also encouraged to adopt my ideas on tax, education, finance, and entitlement reform!)
When I consider the possible pool of GOP candidates — including Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio — I see some politicians who might understand the economic challenges of today are not the same as those of the 1980s and require timeless principles applied in a timely and relevant way. And I see some who might not.
It could well be that the 2016 GOP nominee’s big ideas will be disappointingly familiar: a flat tax, balanced budget amendment, cutting debt ASAP, replacing everything President Obama passed with only vaguely sketched alternatives. Then again, the agenda might actually propose on-point ways government can help middle- and lower-income Americans — sometimes by leaning in, sometimes leaning back — create a prosperous, secure future in an rapidly evolving IT economy. I think it will probably be the latter scenario, but I wouldn’t bet too much on it.