Can the GOP Get Its Ideas Mojo Back?

Illustration by Pablo Delcan

With Paul Ryan leaving and a backward-looking president in charge, the “party of ideas” faces an innovation crisis.

Is anyone ready to lead?

When Paul Ryan accepted his promotion to speaker of the House in 2015—a job he did not want, leading a party and an institution that were increasingly ungovernable—a principal justification was the chance he saw to spearhead an intellectual renaissance in the GOP. Republicans had once prided themselves on belonging to the “party of ideas.” But the buzz of Reaganism had long since turned into a hangover, and Ryan, a politician whose values were shaped in the incubator of a conservative think tank, sensed an opening.

Surveying the GOP presidential field and seeing several like-minded reformers—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and even Scott Walker, less a conservative visionary than an accomplished agitator—Ryan knew that his speakership, in partnership with one of them as president, could result in a policy revolution for a party stuck in the 1980s. And so, in October 2015, he seized the speaker’s gavel and got to work, crafting a sweeping set of proposals—on poverty, health care, taxation—that could serve as a ready-made agenda for whichever kindred spirit won the White House.

Donald Trump had other plans.

Given their sharply diverging personas and history of backbiting, the shotgun marriage between Ryan and Trump was surprisingly successful for the GOP, culminating in a new tax law that, while imperfect in the eyes of many conservatives, was nonetheless among the party’s biggest achievements in a generation. For Republicans, that was the good news. The bad news: Ryan is retiring when his term ends at the end of this year. Love him or hate him, embrace his ideologically fueled efforts to extract government from Americans’ lives or despise them, the fact is that no Republican in recent years has entered the policy arena more frequently. Ryan’s departure will vacate whatever semblance of an intellectual counterbalance to Trump remained in today’s GOP, while leaving a vacuum in the party’s laboratory of ideas that will prove harder to fill than his position in the leadership.

Heading into the fall elections, a little-noticed subplot with enormous implications is how a confluence of circumstances—Trump’s takeover, Ryan’s retirement and the expectations of a unified government—threatens to expose just how inventively barren the GOP has become. Kevin McCarthy, the current No. 2 House Republican and favorite to replace Ryan, is a skilled electoral handicapper with an exhaustive knowledge of congressional districts but couldn’t pass for a policy wonk on Halloween. Steve Scalise, the third in command, who is lurking in the event that McCarthy stumbles, is respected as a shrewd tactician but would never pretend to pose as a thought leader. Whoever next leads the House Republican Conference will be consumed primarily with defending and boosting the president in a reelection cycle, and there are few, if any, ascendant policy gurus in the House rank and file. Things are less bleak in the Senate, but then, those prospective solution merchants—Ben Sasse, Mike Lee, Marco Rubio, Tim Scott—are operating in the planet’s most constricted legislative marketplace, under a leader, Mitch McConnell, whose strategic approach is more conservative than his ideology.

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