The GOP’s Return to Ideas?

Proposing a new Republican platform

Montage depicting a road leading to the capitol with a street sign with the republican party symbol

The U.S. Capitol building, where Stephen Goldsmith says Republican legislators have lost sight of how to improve citizens' lives | MONTAGE BY NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE; PHOTOGRAPHS BY UNSPLASH; REPUBLICAN PARTY SYMBOL IN PUBLIC DOMAIN

At the 2020 Republican National Convention, the GOP did not release a platform, instead saying that it “enthusiastically supports President Trump.” The quadrennial presidential nominating conventions typically serve as a chance for Republicans and Democrats to define and share their policy positions. Instead, the 2020 Republicans united on two points: to support Trump and oppose Democratic policies.

The Republican Party’s abandonment of ideas under Trump concerned Stephen Goldsmith, a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis. The Bok professor of the practice of urban policy has two primary concerns about his party’s lack of philosophy. First, he says its speech has become “strident, antagonistic, [and] unfriendly.” Second, there is no longer a “clash of ideas” between the two parties. Political speech—both in its tone and its content—has significantly deteriorated.

In a recent working paper from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center, “An Aspirational Path for American Conservatism,” Goldsmith and co-author Ryan Streeter (executive director of research and publications for the Civitas Institute at the University of Texas at Austin) articulate a new vision for the Republican Party. The pair believe that the GOP should reject Trumpist populism, nationalism, and culture wars, and instead pursue policy that “helps individuals achieve their aspirations.” To seek happiness and wealth, the authors argue, Americans need strong civic services including schools, transportation, childcare, and public safety.

Healing America’s political rhetoric is a daunting task, so Goldsmith wants to start locally. Having served as Indianapolis mayor from 1992 until 2000, he says he is “from an era where there were large cities with Republican mayors.” In the paper, he and Streeter identify the ’90s as a period when conservatives put ideas into action, enacting school vouchers, community-based public housing, and work-oriented welfare. Three decades later, Goldsmith believes conservatives should again focus on local reform focused on improving lives.

Aspirational Conservatism aims to help “the little guy” (self-starters, small-business owners, and ambitious workers) achieve upward mobility by providing the tools for success rather than safety nets. “It’s not realistic,” he says, “to expect folks in really hard-pressed neighborhoods with poor schools and lots of crime and bad transit and food deserts to be able to take that agency and succeed.” Rather than simply giving funds to low-income Americans, Goldsmith believes, Aspirational Conservatives should address the causes of poverty. The platform suggests “making housing and higher education more affordable” to reduce personal debt, loosening licensing requirements and restricting noncompete clauses to aid job transitions, and “disrupt[ing] and moderniz[ing]” public schools to “prioritize students as individuals.”

The paper highlights “three false choices” facing modern conservatives, each of which the authors believe will diminish the GOP’s policymaking prospects. The first, “culture-war populism,” opts to use heavy-handed federal power to “own the libs” and enforce their own cultural values. Embracing the culture war, Goldsmith says, detracts from solving important economic issues. The second, nationalism, leans on nativism, protectionism, and isolationism. Whereas nationalists believe they can save American jobs by restricting free trade, Goldsmith says Aspirational Conservativism should create jobs by setting up citizens for success. The third, “conservatism light,” offers little more than the promise of smaller government and lower taxes while ignoring the capability for government to prepare people for economic prosperity. Instead, Goldsmith prioritizes an effective government over a small one, and chooses policies based on economics rather than on fear. For example, the paper questions why Republicans would antagonize immigration at-large when “immigrants are historically more entrepreneurial.”

Though Goldsmith rooted his paper in George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” which he helped shape as Bush’s 2000 campaign chief domestic policy advisor, he insists that Aspirational Conservatism is a novel philosophy. Whereas Bush’s platform was “aimed at folks who were barely on the first ladder of economic independence,” he says his paper aims to help give a “sense of upward aspirations” to people a little higher up. To find Aspirational Conservative role models, Goldsmith suggests that politicians look toward “results-oriented governors” in blue and purple states like Larry Hogan (R-MD, whose term is now concluded), Brian Kemp (R-GA), and Mike DeWine (R-OH), “all of whom emphasized effective delivery of government services over waging culture wars.”

For a party that has spent seven years centered around the personality of one man, the prospect that there could be a return to ideas is refreshing—both for the party and American democracy. Conservatives, Goldsmith says, cannot continue “ignoring policy and hoping that suddenly the party and conservatives will move from defining themselves by what they are not to what they are. Someone’s got to put the ideas out there.”

Read more articles by Max J. Krupnick

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