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.
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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.
Ryan’s departure will vacate whatever semblance of an intellectual counterbalance to Trump remained in today’s GOP.
The firing of Robert Mueller and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement notwithstanding, both of the major American political parties are short on big ideas at the moment. But the one most conspicuously outdated in its outlook—the one fundamentally starved of novel thinking to address new challenges—is the one controlling the entire federal government, the one losing its most celebrated innovator, the one steered by a president with a rear-facing worldview and a crew of congressional leaders uninterested in challenging it.
“Think about how crazy this is. Kevin McCarthy has told people that he thinks the president is a genius with regard to his strategy on tariffs and trade. What kind of Republican Party is this?” says Mark Sanford, the South Carolina congressman and former governor, long considered a top policy mind on the right. Sanford, who lost his primary election this year partly because of his harsh criticisms of the president, adds: “I bring up McCarthy because he’s likely taking Paul’s job—but he mostly just echoes Trump. There are some great minds within our conference. But in this system, in this party, their voices aren’t being heard. Trump is casting an awfully big shadow right now.”
There is much at stake—for the party and for the country. Trump’s victory was a confirmation not only of the systemic, complex problems plaguing much of the electorate, but also of the failure of both parties to advance modern solutions to address them. Yet, the president’s policies, rather than leaning forward into the challenges posed in a hyperconnected new century, have attempted to turn back the clock, promising to return America to familiar terrain rather than discover the uncharted. Approaching its first midterm election, Trump’s Republican Party resembles an aging conglomerate bereft of new ideas, one that recycles vintage labeling to inspire nostalgia instead of creating new products to attract the next generation of consumers.
“The party has really been intellectually devoid of a new governing philosophy. We lived on Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley for 45 years,” says Sara Fagen, who served as George W. Bush’s political director in the White House. “Bush had his ‘compassionate conservative’ twist on it, but ultimately he was very much a Reagan-era Republican. And so, you wonder, what’s the new vision for the Republican Party? Who’s the next visionary? In a borderless world, in a digital age, where’s the Republican governing philosophy for the new century?”
Out of power and desperate to snap the GOP from its intellectual slumber, some on the right spent much of Barack Obama’s presidency designing an agenda to answer those very questions. The rise of Trump, however, scuttled those plans and has sparked conversations within the party about a different set of challenges. Is this the beginning of a new period of Republican history or the end of an old one? Will Trumpism durably redefine the party’s core economic philosophy? Can any competing ideological framework take root in today’s GOP? And, given how Trump’s victory defied conventional wisdom, does the Republican Party really need new ideas to win elections?
Nothing concentrates the mind like losing, and for Republicans, the best place to plot a policy renovation has been in the wilderness. This was true of the conservative resurgence that fueled Reaganism, an inspired, ruggedly individualistic response to the lukewarm liberalism of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. It also was true of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America,” a government-reform plan that boxed in Bill Clinton’s New Democrat agenda and helped to deliver control of the House to Republicans for the first time in 40 years.
There was a similar sense of promise after Obama’s reelection in 2012, a contest Republicans believed they should have won based on the political fundamentals of slow economic growth, lagging public confidence and mediocre approval ratings for the president. One reason Mitt Romney couldn’t turn Obama into Carter 2.0 was that, unlike Reagan, he (and the party) lacked a sharp, coherent vision to contrast with that of the Democrats. When the votes were counted, and Obama’s second term was assured, some on the right undertook a serious effort at reinvention. Against a blank canvas of introspection—these were the heady days of the Republican National Committee calling for year-round outreach in minority communities and Fox News host Sean Hannity promoting a pathway to citizenship for people living in the country illegally—a bloc of thoughtful reform conservatives emerged with a new agenda, earnest and cerebral and prescient in identifying the blind spots of the modern GOP.
They were dubbed “Reformicons,” and their general was Yuval Levin, a former Bush 43 adviser who in his 30s launched a quarterly policy journal called National Affairs that became the handbook of the brainiac right. Levin and a loosely affiliated squadron of academics, think tankers, journalists and political strategists designed a fleet of forward-looking free market solutions that shared a simple premise: that the post-Reagan GOP had become reflexively servile to corporations and the wealthy, and no longer offered much to the middle- and working-class Americans left behind by the forces of globalization, deindustrialization and an uneven recovery from the Great Recession. It was, at its core, the same critique that drove Trump to see political gold in the “American carnage” of hardscrabble towns battered by decades of economic dislocation.
“Conservatism that’s more native to the 21st century” is how Levin describes it. “Reaganism arose to deal with barriers to prosperity being put up by an overly aggressive, interventionist government, and obviously there are still such barriers in the way,” he says. “But what we have now more obviously is the breakdown of fundamental institutions, from the family and community, to the very nature of the workplace for a lot of Americans.”
“The party has really been intellectually devoid of a new governing philosophy. We lived on Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley for 45 years.”
Their ideas were provocative and compelling: tax reform centered around child tax credits to benefit working families and earned income credits to incentivize work; elimination of subsidies across the board as a way of leveling the playing field for the little guys competing with Big Business; overhauling the immigration system to prioritize high-skilled labor; and limiting, if not temporarily halting, the inflow of low-skilled workers. The Reformicons gained a critical mass of media attention with op-eds, speeches and policy conferences in 2013 and 2014; for the first time in two decades, there was an authentic energy penetrating the party’s political class—if not its blue-collar base—that could be traced to new intellectual experimentation rather than old ideological rhetoric.
In Congress, the Reformicons found natural allies in the GOP’s swelling crowd of Gen-X legislators who felt a certain detachment from establishment orthodoxy. There was Ryan, of course, whose poverty programs and Medicare premium-support plan they backed; Lee, the Utah senator, whose criminal justice reforms they promoted; and Rubio, the onetime Tea Party darling, whose proposals for rethinking higher education, with an emphasis on vocational training, they endorsed. As Obama’s presidency moved toward closure, there was cause for optimism that Republicans could capture the enthusiasm of the electorate by peddling a clean break not just from eight years of Democratic rule but from old Republican governing paradigms as well. Rubio, more than anyone, shouldered the hopes of the Reformicons. He constructed his entire 2016 presidential platform around the notion of an inverted economic landscape—noting how the biggest retailer in America, Amazon, didn’t own a single store; the biggest transportation company, Uber, didn’t own a single vehicle; and the biggest lodging provider, Airbnb, didn’t own a single hotel—that required a fundamental reimagining of the relationship between government, business and citizens.
That message, ultimately, was drowned out by Trump—even as he spoke to many of the same concerns that animated Rubio and his fellow Reformicons.
While there have been some echoes of reform conservatism in the Trump administration’s approach—attempts to reduce low-skilled immigration, for example—they are not in service of any overarching, organized, future-facing philosophy. The president’s signature legislative win, tax reform, was disproportionately advantageous to the wealthy, a source of tension between Ryan and the Reformicons; Trump’s tariffs and trade warring have been harmful to the working class, especially farmers, for whom the White House is now floating a bailout. (A statist program of subsidies to compensate for harmful government market interventions is certainly one way to break from Reaganism.) On the whole, the administration is still anchored to a status quo—tax cuts, deregulation—that is foundational to conservatism yet insufficient to address the challenges Reformicons began to cite over the past decade: plateauing incomes for the middle class, lack of social mobility for the poor, displacement due to automation, an opioid crisis that has sidelined millions of potential workers, corporate welfare that hurts organic competition and the rising costs of entitlement programs that, if unchecked, will inevitably lead to tax hikes on working families.
“The reform project we were involved in was part diagnosis and part description, and I think the rise of Trump confirmed the diagnosis. But it definitely didn’t involve the party adopting the prescription,” Levin says. “The problems are still there, and they seem very likely to still be there, waiting to be solved, at the end of the Trump years.”
So who will solve them?
Part of what made the Reformicons so remarkable was how out of place they seemed in a Republican Party that, over the past 20 years and most acutely since the dawn of the Tea Party in 2010, has traded sober policy thinkers for swashbuckling political raiders. The explosion of anti-intellectualism in today’s GOP did not occur in a vacuum; as voters grew justifiably upset with broken promises and dysfunctional governance, they were seduced by politicians who sought to inflame their anger rather than assuage it with actual solutions. This created a dangerous, cyclical incentive system in which careers were advanced faster by ranting on Fox News than crafting detailed legislation; where giving a red-meat, made-for-fundraising floor speech was a better use of time than meeting with experts to probe for the next great idea.
Even for those inclined to go the expert route, there were new obstacles—tectonic shifts destabilizing the pillars of the intellectual right, most notably, The Heritage Foundation. Founded in 1973 as the cornerstone of the modern conservative movement and populated early on with some of the sharpest minds in Washington, Heritage quickly became a heavyweight in the policy arena, cranking out studies, analyses and proposals that were widely respected for their scholarly rigor. By the time Reagan won the presidency, he had a cut-and-paste policy agenda available courtesy of Heritage, suddenly America’s most influential think tank. It was this golden age of Republican innovation that Obama referred to while running for president himself in 2008. “I think it’s fair to say that the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there … in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom,” Obama said, eliciting jeers from the left.
But as the GOP morphed over the ensuing decades, so too did Heritage, culminating in the hiring of Jim DeMint as the foundation’s new president in 2012. Known more for his slash-and-burn tactics in Congress than his legislative chops, the South Carolina senator and Tea Party hero promptly transformed Heritage from a diplomatic outpost into a guerrilla unit. DeMint shifted resources away from research and toward its recently launched affiliate, Heritage Action for America, aimed at aggressively lobbying toward ideological ends and combating the perceived weakness of the GOP establishment. The tactics, including punitive threats tied to specific votes and sky-is-falling emails blasted to the grass roots, were unsettling even to many Heritage allies on the right. Scholars fled, replaced by operatives. In 2016, Heritage did play a key role in advising the Trump transition team, filling the new administration with its staffers and supporters—yet this was indicative less of a vibrant organization than of a president who largely refused the help of the party’s existing policy hands, particularly Bush 41 and 43 veterans who would have stepped up to serve under any other new Republican president.
Heritage’s success in populating the administration couldn’t make up for its managerial struggles and the erosion of its credibility within the Beltway GOP, and DeMint was fired in 2017. As Trump tightened his grip on the GOP once in office, what became evident—with Bush loyalists essentially banned from the party, and the insurgent-minded Heritage Foundation in turmoil—was the mutual destruction of both sides of the much-vaunted Republican civil war: After six years of battles between Tea Party conservatives and country-club Republicans, neither sect had articulated a consistent, attractive vision of what the GOP actually stood for. Trump’s first-year spending spree proved that fiscal purity wasn’t necessary, or perhaps even desirable, for many voters after all; at the same time, from starting a trade war to antagonizing European allies, Trump demonstrated that the paternalistic, status quo conventions of the establishment were no longer appealing. It was an odd triumph of intraparty triangulation, one that infused Trump’s nomination—and increasingly, his presidency—with the feeling that it came into existence not for its ideological superiority but for its exploitation of the very divisions that paralyzed the party’s ability to govern and supercharged the narrative of Washington’s impotence.
“While I have strong objections to how Donald Trump is approaching the presidency, there is a reason he has cowed most elected Republicans—while his agenda isn’t wildly popular, theirs isn’t wildly popular, either,” says Reihan Salam, executive editor of National Review and another of the prominent original Reformicons. Making reference to Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney—a fierce fiscal hawk who advocated cuts to military spending and entitlement programs while in Congress—Salam adds, “On some issues, such as safety-net retrenchment, the Mulvaney view is far less popular than Trump’s instinctive view.”
The murmured hope of many Republicans is that, over time, their party will be defined less by Trumpism than by how the party reacts to it—specifically how it addresses those concerns that Trump weaponized while the GOP’s factions were busy squabbling. Across the right, autopsies are being performed and plans are being drawn up, both to rectify old failures and to prepare for new trials. At Heritage, that meant naming Kay Coles James as the foundation’s new president—not without some irony, given that she’s a veteran of the Bush 43 administration, which taints her in the eyes of both Trump White House officials and movement conservative leaders. In an interview, James, the first African-American woman to lead Heritage, acknowledged the organization’s diminished reputation—and made clear that her mission is to restore it.
“I think all of us would recognize that there’s something very unique and very special about The Heritage Foundation that some have come to miss in recent years,” James says. “We have been known as the ideas factory for the conservative movement. We have been known as the institution that provided the intellectual firepower for the entire conservative movement. And now, we’re going back to the future.”
After six years of battles, neither sect had articulated a consistent, attractive vision of what the GOP actually stood for.
What does that mean? James says the first task is to recruit back some of the top talent lost to Capitol Hill, lobbying firms and competing think tanks, which she believes will happen “as we change the narrative about who we are.” But then comes the more concrete challenge—reasserting itself as an intellectual engine without simply recycling ideas from Heritage circa 1980. That won’t happen overnight. James says she divides the foundation’s duties into three camps: reaffirming core ideas, such as tax cuts and deregulation, that are still viable; finding new ways to message other, less popular ideas that could still be attractive; and developing totally new ideas suited to the unique circumstances of our times. When I ask for examples of such breakthroughs, James mentions artificial intelligence and “living in the digital age,” while offering no specifics, and concedes that this third category represents Heritage’s existential burden moving forward.
A few miles away, Arthur Brooks and his American Enterprise Institute are grappling with slightly different problems. As the chief rival to Heritage in the conservative thought space, AEI has taken a very different path in recent years, avoiding partisan politics and investing heavily in research, bulking up its staff with no small number of Heritage exiles. For Brooks, the dilemma is less about fresh ideas—his organization is, among other initiatives, spending tens of millions of dollars on its “human dignity project,” rethinking the structures that inform education, labor, markets and communities—than it is about how to inject those ideas into practical policies. Trump’s ascent ended the right’s decades-long dalliance with cosmopolitan openness—to trade, immigration and globalization. With the party now retreating under Trump’s leadership to the isolationist tendencies of Robert Taft, the Ohio senator whose protectionist and noninterventionist philosophy guided the pre-Cold War GOP, Brooks says, there may be less of an audience to preach to—but more of an opening for experimentation.
“Sooner or later, you play out a product line, and when a company does that, it goes back to its roots. That’s a truism. It’s something you teach your MBA students. And that’s what’s happened after decades of Reaganism,” Brooks says. “It presents an interesting set of challenges and an enormous set of opportunities. Any time you go back to equilibrium it’s an opportunity for entrepreneurship. And for the longest time, in the Republican Party, there haven’t been many opportunities for radical new thinking. Now there is. But it requires scary, courageous, unconventional, entrepreneurial activity.”
The problem for the GOP is that politicians are risk-averse by nature; they are not prone to undertaking anything that is “scary, courageous, unconventional.” This is what concerns intellectual leaders on the right—and what made Ryan’s political celebrity unique. The merits of his proposals aside, he defied the status quo—and exposed himself to intense criticism, even from members of his own party—by injecting enterprising, energizing ideas into the public policy debate, from pushing Social Security reform as a back-bencher in the Bush era to writing his controversial budget blueprints under Obama to proposing unorthodox poverty-fighting programs on Trump’s watch.
The party’s cupboard is not wholly bare when it comes to creative minds. Senator Tim Scott pulled off a legislative coup by incorporating into the tax overhaul a massive new incentive for investment in poor communities. Lee continues to chip away at criminal sentencing fixes, along with infrastructure reforms and other items, while Rubio tinkers with everything from telecom to apprenticeship programs. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, meanwhile, a former university president hailed on the right as a fountain of ideas, is being encouraged by friends and allies to take a more forceful role in showcasing them.
Unfortunately for Republicans, many of the party’s most promising thinkers reside in the Senate, a body that former Senator Jim Webb once likened to an aquarium for its placid culture and painfully slow pace. (It’s no coincidence that institutionalists like McConnell nest comfortably in the Senate, while modernizers such as Sasse and Scott and Rubio complain of claustrophobia.) The House of Representatives, a more open, meritocratic body, has traditionally offered fertile terrain for intellectual germination. But the scorched-earth environment in today’s lower chamber is not exactly conducive to such growth; with toxic tribalism infecting even the most reliably bipartisan committees, rookie legislators could be excused for shedding their idealism before they even possessed it. These are the conditions awaiting McCarthy, or possibly Scalise. Their own policy shortcomings aside, both are party men fully aligned with and dependent on Trump, which limits their autonomy to explore ideas that don’t come from the president.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that this kind of intellectual complacency—a different sort than that which plagued Republicans in the Bush years—grips the party at a time when its leader enjoys a cultlike following among the base that many elected officials are still struggling to decode. What is surprising, however, is the refusal of so many Republicans to step into a void that is obvious to everyone in the party. Where’s the next Paul Ryan, the ambitious would-be wonk looking to make his or her mark not by racking up angry cable news hits but by pumping out quantitative studies and sweeping government reform bills?
“It’s a strange thing that nobody followed Ryan’s model, as he rose on the strength of policy mindfulness and specific ideas, and he rose quickly,” Levin says. “No one in the House has followed that example. I think there’s literally not one person who’s tried to make their way up into House leadership on the strength of policy ideas.” He sighs. “This is just not a policy moment in American politics.”