Opinion | The GOP’s hollow presidential field is allergic to ideas

“Ideas have consequences” was once a favored incantation among conservatives. Drawn from the title of a 1948 book, the phrase was a way for the right to proclaim its intellectual effervescence while casting liberals as the peddlers of a dying creed.

The GOP is now testing a radically new proposition: Are there consequences for having no ideas?

Okay, I guess that depends in part on how you define “ideas.”

Donald Trump has proposed shooting shoplifters, as NBC News noted in a report on GOP “bloodlust.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pledged to kill drug smugglers who cross the Mexican border. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, in more organized fashion, proposed sending Special Forces into Mexico to go after drug cartels. Oh, and DeSantis said last August that he wanted to “slit the throats” of federal bureaucrats on Day 1 of his administration. But don’t be alarmed, civil servants. He explained later that he was “being colorful.”

If killing various kinds of people is a legitimate solution for various problems, then sure, the party’s presidential candidates have plenty of policies to offer.

Occasionally, the party’s hopefuls go beyond vague but sweeping calls for cuts in government spending to spar about something substantive. At a debate earlier this month, Haley proposed raising the retirement age for younger workers, while DeSantis said he wouldn’t. Some deficit hawks will no doubt cheer Haley, but there’s nothing pathbreaking about this argument.

Beyond that, the party is offering little in the way of problem-solving and policy innovation. Culture war battle cries and symbolism are the order of the day.

Sure, you can scoff that looking for new ideas in campaigns reflects a civics textbook form of naiveté. Or you might say that yearning for policy ideas reflects a liberal bias toward government efforts to solve problems. But it was not long ago that Republicans used campaigns to float serious proposals.

In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush made accountability in education a big issue. This led to the “No Child Left Behind” law, which was controversial but also bipartisan. He backed and signed into law a prescription drug benefit under Medicare. He also made serious proposals on immigration reform. These were eventually killed by his own party, foreshadowing the Trump movement and its reluctance to endorse any solution outside of stronger borders and the inhumane treatment of migrants.

In the Obama years, a group of conservative intellectuals launched another venture into the new ideas market. The “Reformicons,” as in reform conservatives, acknowledged the rise of inequality, the need for government help to families struggling in a complicated economy and initiatives to strengthen local community life. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave some surprising speeches on inequality’s costs.

But the Reformicons were fighting the always powerful small-government forces in the party and were preempted by Trump’s appeals to the White working class and his break with free-trade orthodoxy. Trump, to put matters…

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