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Can the “Party of No” become a party of ideas?

| Monday, March 3, 2014

Ever since President Obama first took office back in 2008, the Republican Party has been defined as the “Party of No,” with opposition to whatever the president proposed seeming to be their only real legislative goal. Senator Mitch McConnell famously declared that his top priority was limiting Obama to one-term, and Republicans did their best to prevent anything from actually happening in the federal government. But since the president’s reelection last fall, a funny thing has happened — Republicans have actually started to produce some real ideas of their own.

Just last week, Congressman David Camp, chair of the House Ways and Means committee, produced a long-awaited proposal on tax reform, and it was one of the best in recent history. Unlike most recent GOP tax proposals, it doesn’t use tax reform as an excuse to reduce the tax code’s progressivity or implement a true flat tax. It actually contained specific proposals aimed at closing loopholes to reduce tax rates for most taxpayers, instead of including broad generalities about “reform.”

To be fair, Camp’s proposal has essentially zero chance of passing in 2014. In an election year there’s very little hope that both parties would come together to pass something as important as comprehensive tax reform, and it’s not clear that members of either party would support the proposal in whole. Democrats aren’t likely to accept a proposal that doesn’t raise more revenue — Camp’s is revenue-neutral — and Republican leadership has already distanced itself from Camp’s proposal, which in aggressively going after loopholes is likely to upset a number of Republican constituents in the business community.

But what makes Camp’s proposal important is that it helps add to a body of definitive policy proposals within the Republican Party in advance of the 2016 election, which is exactly what the party needs. To rebuild after losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the GOP will have to be more than the anti-Obama party and whoever is seeking the party’s nomination will need to have ideas to turn towards.

Take healthcare. The refrain of “repeal and replace” has been repeated ever since the Affordable Care Act passed into law, but even as they took 40-some odd votes on repealing the ACA, Republicans could never agree upon a definitive proposal for what came next. Just a few weeks ago, Senators Tom Coburn, Orrin Hatch and Richard Burr unveiled the Patient CARE Act, easily the most credible Republican alternative to Obamacare. Combined with suggestions from center-right think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute and American Enterprise Institute, the bill at least sets the stage for real ideas to begin to emerge.

Similarly, last fall Senator Mike Lee unveiled a tax reform proposal of his own aimed at making the tax code more pro-family and pro-middle class by expanding child tax credits and eliminating the marriage penalty, among other things. Along with Camp’s proposal, the GOP may have several ideas on where to go with taxes instead of simply focusing on preventing tax hikes on the rich.
There are other areas of reform. Last spring Senator David Vitter joined with Democrat Sherrod Brown on a financial reform proposal. Senator Marco Rubio has outlined the beginnings of an antipoverty agenda and Congressman Paul Ryan has promised to outline an antipoverty plan of his own this spring — which is great news, as policies aimed at helping the poor are one area that has traditionally been lacking in the Republican Party. The reform agenda isn’t just limited to economic policy. Senator Rand Paul has been outspoken on the need for criminal justice reform, working with Democratic Senator Cory Booker on drug reform and Attorney General Eric Holder on reforming mandatory minimum laws and restoring ex-convict voting rights.

There are certainly still areas that need more focus — a pro-market alternative to the left’s reliance on bureaucracy and regulation on environmental policy, for instance or some more definitive ideas on education policy beyond expanding school choice — but a shift away from simple resistance and towards a definitive alternative is still a good one.

Perhaps I am too optimistic. After all, despite these proposals, no action on Republican policy proposals is likely to come anytime between now and the next presidential election. The GOP is still likely to actively resist doing anything President Obama thinks should be done. But if they ever hope to return to power, Republicans need to be willing to put their name on definitive solutions to some of our largest challenges and it’s nice to see them start.

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