Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012 | 2:01 a.m.
After declining to give details of the Romney-Ryan tax plan in a testy back-and-forth with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan, offered a novel excuse. He didn’t want to put viewers to sleep.
“I like Chris,” the Wisconsin Republican told a Milwaukee talk radio show. “I didn’t want to get into all of the math on this because everyone would start changing the channel.”
That’s merciful, I suppose. But it’s also too bad, since Ryan’s tax plan is one of the closest things that we have heard in Campaign 2012 to an original idea.
What happened, I wondered, to the days when another conservative challenger, Ronald Reagan, led what many called a “party of new ideas,” a time when conservatives responded to the liberal legacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with market-driven innovations of their own?
Ideas like welfare reform, school vouchers, neighborhood enterprise zones and tenant management of public housing enlivened a real debate and helped make Reagan a truly transformational president, even for those of us who opposed many of his ideas.
Today, despite the conservative think tanks and 24/7 talk shows and blogs, the party of ideas has become the party of “No,” blocking President Barack Obama’s initiatives without presenting many alternative ideas of their own.
One academic, Corey Robin at Brooklyn College, gave me a plain and simple answer: “Because they don’t have to,” he said.
That’s a nutshell version of the central argument in Robin’s latest book, “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.” For all the talk we hear from the right about freedom and liberty these days, the conservative movement dating back to the 18th century Whig statesman Edmund Burke, the movement’s founding philosopher, has always merely defended the status quo, as far as it protected elites. Only after the empowered and privileged classes are challenged by some new order do conservatives feel compelled to articulate new political ideas.
For Burke, a supporter of the American Revolution, that unacceptable challenge came when the French Revolution turned ugly with mob rule and brutality. The history of conservatives in the United States is marked by similar confrontations to block such change agents as abolitionists, progressives, socialists, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and, most recently, the gay marriage movement.
“Conservative ideas are only produced when they have to be produced,” Robin, an associate professor in political science, told me in a telephone interview. “When real power and privilege are being threatened, that’s when the conservative defenders of those powers and privilege recognize they have to come up with a new defense.”
Of course, conservative thought leaders have been as varied as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ayn Rand and Jack Kemp, to name a few. But the constructive obstructionism, as I would call it, that links them all was captured best in a much-quoted line from National Review founder William F. Buckley’s mission statement: The magazine, he declared, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Indeed, there are times when conservatism plays a valuable role in checking the excesses of the left. But the right has little reason to rise up with new ideas these days, Robin says, because, ironically, “they already have won. The administration of Barack Obama is proof of that in a bizarre kind of way. Here you had the most progressive candidate to come along in a generation ... yet, he has governed like an Eisenhower Republican.”
Indeed, despite a previous voting record that conservatives blast as “the most liberal in the Congress,” President Obama has governed mostly as a center-left moderate who admiringly quotes Ronald Reagan. Even Obama’s embattled health care overhaul and stimulus packages took as much fire from the left as from the right for giving away too much, even before negotiations began.
Besides, despite all of the paranoid right-wing myths about Obama as a Marxist-Kenyan-Muslim, Obama’s unthreatening moderation is revealed in the failure of moderate establishment Republicans to rise up against him with anything resembling the far right’s panic. True conservatives know when they have something valuable to conserve, beginning with their sanity.
So those of us who would like to see a more vigorous debate from the right will just have to wait. There’s no need to come up with new ideas when a simple “No” will do.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He writes from Washington.