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Stuck in the no-idea zone

EVER SINCE Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, conservatives have been gloating that their success comes from their superior ideas. The frequency of this claim tends to spike when Republicans are coming off an electoral triumph, and the 2004 election prompted a fresh batch of gloating. As recently as January, Karl Rove was crowing, “We are the party of ideas.” Well, where are all the great conservative ideas now?

Let’s go through the list. The biggest issue the country now faces is Iraq. What’s the Republican position? Stay the course. How about domestically? Keep the tax cuts in place. Don’t change a thing. Bush’s agenda is completely exhausted at this point.

Am I being unfair? Yes -- in fact, deliberately so. The essence of the modern conservative argument has revolved around the assertion that their side is proposing change while the Democrats propose stasis. This was the dominant theme of the debate over Social Security privatization. President Bush accused his opponents of having “the philosophy of the stop sign, the agenda of the roadblock.” One labor leader confessed to the New York Times that “it makes me realize how vibrant the Republicans are in creating 21st century ideas, and how sad it is that we’re defending 60-year-old ideas.”

All this was based on a deep confusion between cause and effect. Republicans were pushing new ideas because they had political power; they didn’t have political power because of their ideas. (Anybody who believed last year that Bush won reelection because of his support for privatized Social Security surely has been disabused of that delusion.) When you lack power, the best you can do is prevent bad ideas from being enacted. That’s not the same thing as failing to have new ideas.

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In truth, Bush’s agenda has run aground not because he has no ideas but because he has no power. His approval ratings have plummeted, and Republicans in Congress are running for cover. If Bush could rule by fiat he would have plenty of ideas to implement -- more tax cuts for businesses and upper-income individuals, cutting regulations and poverty programs. He simply lacks the juice to implement them.

So he’s left defending the status quo against “new ideas.” Remaining in Iraq is status quo; pulling out is a new policy. Keeping the tax cuts is status quo; repealing them and using the resources elsewhere is new. If the situation were reversed, conservatives would be taunting liberals for having no ideas and defending the tired status quo. Turning the taunt around is satisfying, but it doesn’t really explain the situation.

On the other hand, there is a deeper sense in which Bush and the conservatives truly have run out of ideas. They lack any answers, or even any explanations, for the main problems the country faces. Overseas, North Korea and Iran are on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. What does the right propose to do about this? Nothing. Its ideology of democratization -- while attractive and possibly correct -- is geared toward justifying the Iraq war but has almost no application to these more pressing threats.

At home, things are worse. We’re facing large deficits even during an economic expansion (which means the deficits will explode when the economic cycle inevitably slows.) What is the GOP’s answer? Spending cuts that come nowhere close to filling the hole.

Healthcare costs are exploding as well, helping to drive automakers near bankruptcy and swallowing up any wage gains for middle-income workers, while more and more Americans lose their health insurance. Liberal magazines and blogs are filled with wonky talk of healthcare reform. Conservative organs are almost totally silent.

And the one conservative solution is health savings accounts. Even if you think such accounts are a good idea, which they aren’t, the scale is pathetically unequal to the size of the problem. If somehow they worked perfectly, they would still make barely a dent in the number of uninsured or health costs, most of which are run up by people with expenses too high to be covered by these accounts.

The problem isn’t that the conservatives have absolutely no ideas, it’s that when they have one, it’s not relevant to the actual world we live in.


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