Reform Republicanism and the matter of timing

In 1981, Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote, “Of a sudden, the GOP has become the party of ideas.” A lesser stylist would have settled for “All of a sudden.” But Moynihan wisely put his signature on what he probably expected would be a quotation oft-repeated.

Repeating Moynihan’s quotation 33 years later, Peter Wehner says the time is ripe for the GOP to become the party of new ideas again. And he sees “some encouraging signs”:

Republicans already showed some real leadership in the president’s first term by offering a serious, market-oriented Medicare-reform proposal—produced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and backed by essentially every Republican in Congress.

Earlier this year, Senators Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Orrin Hatch followed up with a health-care proposal that would cover as many people as the Affordable Care Act without the taxes, mandates, and burdensome regulations and at a far lower cost by empowering consumers. Another ambitious health-reform bill is now co-sponsored by a majority of House Republicans.

Mr. Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio (among others) have proposed serious reforms to help sustain the safety net for the poor by re-orienting it toward work and opportunity. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senator Mike Lee have each proposed a major tax reform plan—and a combination of the two could well make for a winning Republican tax agenda. Other prominent proposals have included reforms of higher-education policy to increase options and lower costs, and reforms of transportation policy, the criminal-justice system, unemployment assistance, and more.

It is still fashionable in some circles to call Republicans the “Party of No,” but when has there been such a flurry of concrete policy proposals from an opposition party in Congress?

I touched on this phenomenon in a post called “The Camp tax proposal and Reform Republicanism”:

I disagree with those who say Republicans can’t prevail in 2014 without being reformers. In that election, it seems to me, Republicans will probably do quite well sticking to opposing Obamacare and avoiding gaffes and bad nominees.

But 2016 will be another matter. The Democrats are likely to nominate a geezer with standard-issue liberal views — probably Clinton, maybe Biden — at a time when the country is likely to be looking for fresh ideas. In that context, Reform Republicanism, if well thought out, will stand the GOP in good stead.

This brings me back to Moynihan’s quote. In one sense, the GOP didn’t “of a sudden” become the party of ideas in 1981. The ideas that came to the fore that year had been developed beforehand. But Moynihan was right in the sense that these ideas went “mainstream” Republican during the 1980 presidential campaign and the first year of the Reagan presidency.

This model reinforces my view that the time for Reform Republicanism as a political platform (as opposed to a project for the Party’s leading thinkers) is the 2016 presidential campaign, not the 2014 congressional races. “No” should work fine this year.

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