In the Arena

Grand Elderly Party

All this talk of rebranding and rethinking is more a marketing exercise than a soul-search. Still, there is some interesting and substantial thinking about policy going on within the GOP.

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The hand-wringing about the future of the Republican party proceeds apace. I tend to agree with Frank Rich, who argues that all this talk of rebranding and rethinking is more a marketing exercise than a soul-search, and that the party will be trapped by the Limbaugh minority until a critical mass of Republican leaders stand up to the wingnut horde. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some interesting and substantial thinking about policy going on within the GOP.

The best thinking is being done by young conservatives like Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam–who, for example and for years, have been promoting the idea that Republicans should accept the need for universal health coverage and other heresies. They are joined this month by two members of the Republican intellectual establishment (and the Bush 43 White House), Mike Gerson and Pete Wehner, who’ve written a smart piece in this month’s Commentary about policy changes the party should make. I’ve had my differences with Wehner in the past, to say the least, especially when he’s in electoral henchman mode, and I’m sure I have plenty of policy differences with him and Gerson now. But they’ve taken some interesting and courageous steps here that are worth noting.

The most important suggestions, to my mind, are in the area of financial and tax reform. They favor ”the end of corporate welfare as we know it.” This is a wistful nod toward Bill Clinton‘s proposal to put work requirements and time limits on welfare–but it is a smart analogy: They propose that Republicans divorce themselves from the culture of corporatism, just as Clinton separated himself from the culture of dependency. They also favor breaking up the five largest banks, which control assets equal to 60% of GDP, a ”moral hazard” if ever one existed. (I continue to believe that if Mitt Romney–still clueless, from the look of his re-emergence this week–had gone with this form of financial reform, he might have won the election. And I continue to be disappointed by the hold Wall Street still has on President Obama.)

There is also a grudging acknowledgment that gay marriage is here to stay. And a valuable reminder: ”It is heterosexuals, not homosexuals, who have made a hash out of marriage.” And an insistence that intact families are far more congenial to child-rearing than single-parent homes, a fact that has been proven definitively by study after study over the past 30 years. This opens a door to an interesting conversation that Gerson and Wehner choose not to walk through: what sort of responsible behavior do we have a right to demand of our fellow citizens, rich and poor, who receive benefits from the government?

The rest of the piece is tantalizing. They acknowledge that climate change seems, well, sorta, seems to be real. They have nothing to say about Obamacare, and very little interesting to add to the general debate about health care. This is a significant black hole…But Wehner and Gerson have opened a valuable conversation–valuable not just for Republicans, but also for Democrats who absolutely need to understand that their current electoral prosperity is largely a result of the Republicans’ current idiocy, and not a consequence of liberal policy creativity (which, so far as I can tell, is a pretty dry hole right now).

There are huge structural issues–corroded federal, state and city bureaucracies, antique education and regulatory systems, a public loss of the habits of citizenship–that we need to face as the world spins on, ever faster and more competitive. The President talks about the middle class, but his proposals offer no creative path away from the current political impasse. By contrast, Jeb Bush had an interesting answer this morning when Joe Scarborough asked him about the most important question facing the country over the next 30 years: the absence of social mobility, he said. I’m not sure how Bush would address this dilemma, or whether I’d agree with his solutions, but it is a creative frame for the conversation we need to have right now about the fate of the middle class–and especially intriguing when it comes from a Republican with a track record of creative governance.

Indeed, the fact that Jeb Bush isn’t not running for President may be the most hopeful sign of a Republican intellectual resuscitation that we’ve seen so far.