Michael Tomasky on the Ridiculousness of Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio

Why have Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio learned nothing from their party’s historic trouncing on election day?

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So we saw Tuesday night the unveiling of the “new” Republican Party at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner. The two young stars spoke, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio. Politico gave it a big write up, noting how many times Ryan mentioned the word “poverty” and how many times Rubio said “middle class.” One can see already that the media is going to hype these two and their supposed new thinking relentlessly. Is there anything to the hype? Of course not, and the reason is simple. Neither they nor the people they’re talking to are ready to accept that they’ve been wrong about anything except messaging, and until they are, this is just gaseous rhetoric.

The rhetoric, I admit, they’ve got down. No 53 percenters, these two! They love everybody. The GOP, Ryan said in his speech, knows how to talk to the “risk-takers.” But unlike Mitt Romney, he sees that “there is another part of the American creed: when our neighbors are struggling, we look out for one another. We do that best through our families and communities—and our party must stand for making them stronger. We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work—but sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision. We need to do better.”

Rubio went so far in his remarks as to mimic liberal economic belief, sounding not too unlike Barack Obama at certain moments: “The emergence of a strong, vibrant, and growing 21st-century American middle class is the answer to the most pressing challenges we face. Millions of Americans with jobs that pay more means more buyers for our products, more customers for our businesses, and more taxpayers for our governments. The more they spend, the more jobs they create for others…” And so on. You get the picture. There’s an implicit rejection of supply-side theology in there, which I doubt would have made old Mr. Kemp very happy.

On both went, about education, opportunity, the working poor, student loans. Rubio even offered one or two ... well, they could be called policies, or inklings of policies. But here’s what neither man came close to doing.

Back in 1984 and ’85, when the Democrats were similarly wandering in the wilderness, a good-sized chunk of Democrats said, “Enough. We’re tired of losing, and we need some updating.” I don’t by a long shot agree with every position the Democratic Leadership Council took, but I certainly know that it was on the whole a good and necessary thing; the Democratic Party obviously had to reexamine some of its positions. Change didn’t come easy, and it took one more wipeout of an election, but along came Bill Clinton, and the party drank its tonic and embraced (sort of; enough so that voters noticed the change) welfare reform and free trade.

Republicans aren’t anywhere near to exposing themselves to the kind of self-examination and intra-party debate the Democrats undertook after Reagan’s second win. Despite upholstering their speeches with ample liberal rhetoric, and in Rubio’s case those aforementioned quasi-proposals, Rubio and Ryan both stuck hard to current-day GOP gospel. Raising tax rates isn’t an option. Relying on government isn’t the answer, and all the rest. When I read the Ryan remarks I quoted above, as I first started reading those words, I thought to myself, “Ah, might I encounter here an actual nugget of self-criticism?” It came. But it was only about messaging. The substance of their positions, to them, is fine and dandy.

Republicans: You lost. Pretty badly, in turns out, the more we see these official results come in (just yesterday, Obama’s margin of victory in Ohio went from roughly 103,000 to 166,000). Your ideas are unpopular. Americans don’t want them. And they do not work. The rising tide of the free market does not lift all boats. Ryan—you don’t do a good job of laying out that “vision” because there is no vision. A man who makes his staff read Ayn Rand and got into politics because of her doesn’t have a vision for poor people, or at least a positive one.

Either that, or he has an exceedingly poor grasp of that sententious drivel he’s making those poor saps read. Or perhaps he’s just not really all that smart, which was true, by the way, of the sainted Kemp. He believed in economic theories that were impossible and impractical, and sometimes, when people think 2+2=5, after we’ve tried out all the fancy theories about why they’re wrong, we are forced to settle on Occam’s Razor.

But here’s the thing. If Ryan or Rubio had been ready to spoon out some bitter medicine, they’d have been catcalled off the stage. Republicans, based on what we’re seeing on Capitol Hill right now, aren’t close to being ready for that. A few conservative intellectuals talk this talk, but never in the history of the relationship between intellectuals and politicians has an intellectual class been so removed from and powerless to influence its political class.

As I said, the mainstream media will fall for this gibberish. Just hearing Republicans say that they care, they really care, makes their knees go wobbly. But rhetoric does not signify actual change. That requires searing internal debate and some new policies—new policies that carry the implicit or even explicit acknowledgment that the party has been wrong about some things. Until we see all that, it’s the Same Old Party.