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Clarence Page / Politics

New Ideas? Just Say 'No'

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.

Why?

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.

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