David Brooks has a hopeful column about conservatism in today's New York Times, lauding the work of serious conservative policy intellectuals and arguing, more or less, that the current Republican agenda of opposing whatever Democrats support and offering to supplant it with all the freedom the 19th century can buy is not a long-term proposition.
"The Republican style of recent years has produced a vacuum where concrete proposals should be," Brooks wrote. "The emerging conservatives won’t have to argue with or defeat the more populist factions on the right; they can just fill the vacuum. Republican politicians, when they are asked to come up with specific programs, will find there is no other game in town."
That's an encouraging theory. And there is some fertile ground for it. Republican Senator Lamar Alexander's new campaign ad refers to him as "a thinking conservative who is serious about solving problems" -- a line presumably meant to distinguish him from the kind of conservatives who dominate Fox News programs. Eventually, Brooks's vision is bound to come true: Republicans can't remain bankrupt of ideas year after year and thrive as a political party. But they might prolong the "vacuum" for another year -- or, worse, three.
The unsettled nature of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will encourage just that. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas gave an interview this week to the Wall Street Journal's Neil King Jr. that shows what conservative reformers are up against. King wrote that Cruz "lambasted Senate Republicans for a lack of courage" -- evidently, they've been too cooperative with Democrats -- and promised to fight harder "to repeal every word of Obamacare." Cruz went on to compare his fight against a plan to expand access to private health insurance and Medicaid to Ronald Reagan's battle against the Soviet Union.
If Obamacare were either clearly dead or alive, there would be little market for Cruz's crusade. The health plan's current state of bumpy forward progress, however, is too tempting a target for Cruz and other would-be dragon slayers to ignore. Rather than encouraging policy creativity, Cruz's unflinching extremism will help squelch it, putting pressure on other Republican candidates, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who seems to have higher aspirations, to get down and crazy with him, or at least not venture too far from the party's far-right margin.
What space that leaves for developing and marketing better policy to a primary electorate that has been fed a junk-food diet for five years is unclear. But it must be very dispiriting to be a serious policy thinker in a party in which so many energetically combat serious policy thinking.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)