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O'BRIEN: GOP no longer has vision for governance

Opinion Column: Taming Tribalism

Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — who left office just four months ago but who already feels like a distant figure from another political era — famously said he viewed politics as a “battle of ideas,” a substantive competition between well-intentioned people to solve public problems. While there was ample reason to question his commitment to this vision in practice, Ryan presented himself as a serious wonk with big ideas to reform America’s tax system and social safety net. 

But there is a reason Ryan is back home in Wisconsin and no longer roaming Capitol Hill. His political vision lost decisively, not in the national Democratic wave that swept his party out of power in the House last November, but three years ago in the Republican presidential primary. Even as his party seized control of both Congress and the White House, virtually none of Ryan’s political vision became reality. His efforts to make drastic cuts to the country’s social safety net went nowhere. 

His long-running pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act fell flat once his party realized it had no substantive plans to expand access to health insurance or lower costs. While he was able to push through tax cuts, they hardly resembled his original plan, which was centered around reforms like a destination-based cash flow tax, wholesale changes to the structure of corporate taxation and curtailing the tax code’s complex web of deductions and credits. Some of his ideas were good and others downright awful, but if nothing else, he had a coherent policy vision for the country. 

But this is not a critique of Ryan. The center-Right as a movement would be better off with him as an active member. Yet there is no longer room for Ryan in the Republican Party. Why? 

Because today’s Republican Party is simply out of ideas. It is allergic to them. It shuns intellectualism and expertise of any kind. It has no vision for governance, intellectual curiosity or drive to find creative solutions to America’s problems. There is but one indispensable value that remains at the core of this broken institution, one far more enduring than any policy position: “Owning the libs.”

Stephen Moore, one of President Donald J. Trump’s picks to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, embodies this new, toxic, tribal attitude. The Federal Reserve is the single most important institution in the global economy — a force for growth and stability more influential than presidents and Congress. This is why, historically, presidents have chosen accomplished economists or bona fide experts in financial markets to serve in these positions. But Moore has spent his entire career as a political activist and holds no such expertise. 

He has taken every conceivable position on monetary policy and is regarded even by accomplished conservative economists as a partisan hack, willing to say anything to curry favor with the president. But what does he have going for him? He gets under liberals’ skin. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) praised Moore for having “thrown the card-carrying members of the Beltway establishment into a tizzy.” Well, let us hurry up and hand him the keys to the global economy! 

Or look at the recent administration proposal to release undocumented immigrants into “sanctuary cities,” as if they were a disease to unleash on an enemy population. There is no practical purpose to such an action. It is not meant to improve our immigration system in any way. Its sole purpose is to troll.

This attitude is not limited to regulatory actions or personnel decisions. Even the Republican Party’s major legislative initiatives have been poisoned by this politics-as-trolling approach. The party’s desperate efforts in the summer of 2017 to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without a replacement revealed it had no ideas for a post-ACA healthcare system. 

Sure, there are plenty of compelling ideas in the healthcare space rooted in conservative or libertarian thinking, but as with Ryan’s tax efforts, none of these ideas ended up in repeal plans. The final and most cynical effort of them all, the so-called “skinny repeal” bill, would have left 16 million more people uninsured and raised exchange premiums by 20%. Of course, that pales in comparison to the joy we would get from totally sticking it to the libs.

At the moment, this empty, substance-free sentiment is mostly limited to the GOP, as Democrats begin a policy-focused primary, but it will eventually infect our entire political system without a conscious, uncomfortable intervention. It may be fun to expend so much political energy on a trolling-centered culture war right now, but when forced to confront an urgent national problem — like a financial crisis or deep recession — the Republican Party is going to wish it had not abandoned its genuine wonks.

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring  in economics. His column, "Policy Over Politics," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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