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Friday, December 9, 2016

WASHINGTON — If Paul Ryan were a liberal, conservatives would describe him as a creature of Washington who has spent virtually all of his professional life as a congressional aide, a staffer at an ideological think tank, and, finally, as a member of Congress. In the right’s shorthand: he never met a payroll.

If they were in a sunny mood, these conservatives would readily concede that Ryan is a nice guy who’s fun to talk to. But they’d also insist that he is an impractical ideologue. He holds an almost entirely theoretical view of the world defined by big ideas that never touch the ground and devotes little energy to considering how his proposed budgets might affect the lives of people he’s never met.

In making Ryan his running mate, Mitt Romney guaranteed that this election will be about big principles, but he also underscored a little-noted transformation in American politics: Liberals and conservatives have switched sides on the matter of which camp constitutes the party of theory and which is the party of practice. Americans usually reject the party of theory, which is what conservatism has now become.

In the late 1960s and ’70s, liberals ran into trouble because they were easily mocked as impractical ideologues with excessive confidence in their own moral righteousness. They were accused of ignoring the law of unintended consequences and of failing to look carefully at who would be helped and who’d be hurt by their grand schemes.

Since I’m a liberal, I’d note that these criticisms were not always fair. Many of the liberals’ enduring achievements — from civil rights to environmental laws to Medicare — grew from the boldness their confidence inspired. But, yes, there was arrogance in liberalism’s refusal to take conservatism seriously.

Conservatives, in the meantime, gained ground by asking tough and practical questions: Will this program work as promised? Does it bear any connection to how the world really works? And, by the way, who benefits?