WASHINGTON — Are conservatives interested in new ideas, or are they merely infatuated with the idea of new ideas? Are they really reappraising their approach, or are they trying to adjust their image just enough to win elections?
One way to look at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference is as a faceoff between the “No Surrender” cries of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and the “Let’s Try to Win” rhetoric of such politicians as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). Seen in this light, Republicans truly are having the internal debate that Ryan called “messy,” “noisy,” and “a little bit uncomfortable.”
But Ryan may have revealed more than he intended when he downplayed conservative divisions. “For the most part,” Ryan insisted, “these disagreements have not been over principles or even policies. They’ve been over tactics.”
In which case, this is not an argument over ideas at all, but a discussion of packaging.
Christie was quite direct on this point. “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” he said. “Let us come out of here resolved not only to stand for our principles. Let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”
To which Cruz had a ready reply: that Republicans are better off saying what they actually think. With Cruz, at least, you get the unvarnished right-wing gospel, preached without equivocation.
No doubt there’s intellectual ferment among the right’s leading thinkers and some of its politicians, often reflected in the pages of the conservative journal National Affairs. Conservatives seem keen these days to acknowledge the need for some kind of social safety net. And while many on the right still deny or dismiss the problem of growing economic inequality, many are at least grappling with the crisis in upward mobility.
But so far, it’s hard to find evidence of any fundamental rethinking. Conservatives want to say that they’re devoted to more than the well-being of the wealthy, but their tax and regulatory policies remain focused on alleviating the burdens on the “job creators,” i.e., the rich. They say they want to do better by the poor, but the thrust of their budgets is to reduce assistance — sometime savagely, as in the case of food stamps — to those who need it.
Ryan no longer refers to social programs as a “hammock” for the idle, but he still wants to cut them. And he cited Eloise Anderson, a Wisconsin state official, to tell a story in his CPAC speech — it got more attention than he now wishes — about “a young boy from a very poor family” who “would get a free lunch from a government program.”
The young man “told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.”