Ramesh Ponnuru, a leading thinker on the right, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times that is worth reading. He argues that Republicans “slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones.”
Ponnuru provides examples; including pointing out that the top tax rate when Reagan took office was 70 percent v. 35 percent for most of the last decade. (The payroll tax is larger than the income tax for most people.) He also points out Reagan inherited an economy in which inflation was in double digits v. just two percent over the last five years. The conditions we face in 2013 are, as one would expect, quite a bit different than what Reagan faced more than three decades ago.
In the March issue of COMMENTARY, Michael Gerson and I offer a similar argument, saying:
And it is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those offered up by the party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years.
To be clear: Reasonable tax rates and sound monetary policy remain important economic commitments. But America now confronts a series of challenges that have to do with globalization, stagnant wages, the loss of blue-collar jobs, exploding health-care and college costs, and the collapse of the culture of marriage.
Ponnuru in his op-ed, and Gerson and I in our essay, offer up policies that we believe address the issues facing America in the 21st century. People can read both pieces and judge the merits of our recommendations. But I want to make two other points.
The first is that there is an intellectual unfreezing that is taking place within the Republican Party that is all to the good. People from different parts of the party and who represent different strands within conservatism are offering up ideas for what needs to be done. Not all of them are wise, of course, but competing ideas need to be heard. Fortunately the impulse to attack people as heretics who should be expelled from the party is for the most part being held in check. That’s not true of everyone, of course. Some people are temperamentally attracted to an auto-da-fe. But it seems to me that in general there’s a real openness on the part of Republican lawmakers and conservatives to recalibration.
The second point is that Reagan himself was a fairly creative policy entrepreneur in his own right. He advanced what was essentially a new economic theory, supply side economics, and replaced détente and containment with a strategy of rolling back the Soviet empire.
Those approaches are well known and seem obvious now, but at the time they were unorthodox and controversial. It was Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan who in 1980 confessed, “Of a sudden, the GOP has become a party of ideas.”
Ronald Reagan adjusted his policies to meet the challenges of his time, and two generations after Reagan, Republicans and conservatives need to do the same thing.
Let the recalibration and rethinking continue.