There just wasn’t much to the president’s big economic speech yesterday. It followed the familiar pattern of his economic arguments—nostalgia for the America of the postwar era, some awfully shallow reflections on how much things have changed, and a series of tiny ideas that are supposed to bring it all back. Inadequate means to implausible ends and very little real contention with the actual circumstances of 21st century America.
For all their policy differences, this is actually very much the pattern of the economic arguments of both the left and the right. The left yearns for problems to which the economic and social policies of the mid-1960s would be solutions and the right yearns for problems to which the economic and social policies of the early 1980s would be solutions. Neither wants to think too much about what economic and social policies might offer solutions to today’s rather different problems. That’s why our policy debates are so energizing and constructive.
For what it’s worth, I think the right is in a much better position to actually offer some policy remedies to some of the key economic and social challenges we face. Democrats are far more hemmed in by the ideological blinders that keep them from seeing the American welfare state’s problems and by the demands of their electoral coalition, which for all its progressive rhetoric is deeply committed to the status quo (including of course the doubling down on Great Society entitlement policy design embodied by the left’s achievements of the past few years). Republicans are mostly hemmed in by intellectual and political inertia, which is a powerful force but not nearly so deep. Most of them have yet to see the opportunity they have now to offer a conservative reform agenda focused on the needs of working-class families. The almost total absence of a policy agenda on the left (an unusual situation for the left to be in, but one in which they seem likely to be stuck for a while) ought to cause ambitious conservative politicians to think anew about what applied conservative principles can offer the public. Various wonks on the right have gone some distance along these lines (I’d offer this compendium of such ideas, with quarterly updates, but there are many others). But it will take more than wonks. It will take political leaders.
Thinking anew about how conservative principles apply to contemporary problems is the real lesson today’s Republicans ought to take from those of the Reagan era. They should emulate not so much the outcomes of that process—which after all had to do with the specific situation of the 70s and 80s—but the process itself, which today would yield some different means to the same crucial ends. That’s the kind of nostalgia we should get behind.