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What's the Big Idea?

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Back when Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives, Bob Dole made a joke to some people chewing the fat in his office. "I have a big file cabinet in my office," Dole quipped, and the drawers are labeled "Newt's Ideas; Newt's Ideas; Newt's Ideas." Then he concluded, "Down at the bottom there's a tiny little file: Newt's Good Ideas."

And this was before Gingrich started talking about putting industrial operations on the moon.

One of the Republican sleights-of-hand I find most perplexing is how conservatives convinced the rest of us that the Republican party was the party of big ideas, with Gingrich as its in-house Big Thinker.

When Mitt Romney became the inevitable GOP nominee -- and again when he selected Paul Ryan as his running-mate -- we were promised, by people like David Brooks, a clash of big ideas, a fundamental choice between one vision of what the nation ought to be and another: small government vs. big government; private enterprise vs. state-sponsored dependency; rugged individualism vs. soft-bellied collectivism!

Now the Romney-Ryan campaign bus is lost on the backroads of its own ineptitude, and the story isn't about big ideas but about Romney the Bizarro Candidate. How does a guy trying to sell his competence as a manager manage to bungle his own convention? How can it be that a quarter-billionaire-dollar private equity fund CEO seems to be running out of money?

Which is too bad because this electoral season ought to be about big ideas. More specifically, this season ought to feature that Wizard of Oz moment when we draw the curtain back on the "party of big ideas" to reveal that there isn't much there there. And what's more, there never has been.

For thirty-plus years now Republicans have clung tenaciously to the same basic economic formula: tax cuts for the wealthy and businesses, deregulation, and privatization. It's the plan Ronald Reagan promised (and delivered); that George W. Bush also brought to Washington; and Romney is peddling it right now.

Even in 1980 there wasn't anything particularly new or big about these ideas. They were a retread of the economic policies of the 1920s. As one journalist at the time put it: "There should be less government in business and more business in government." That line might have come straight from the editorial page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal.

Reagan admired Calvin Coolidge probably more than any of his predecessors because Coolidge, and his Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, engineered two large tax cuts in 1924 and 1926 and reduced meddling government regulation. Of course, those policies contributed significantly to the Great Depression the year after Coolidge left Washington, but that didn't prevent Reagan from hanging Coolidge's official White House portrait in the Oval Office.

Far from being big or new ideas, Republican economic policies hardly qualify as ideas at all. They are dogmas impervious to circumstances or facts. Neither big or new, these ideas don't work and never have.

After eight years of Reagan's deregulation (and, equally important, lax enforcement of regulation) we got the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry, which then had to be bailed out with public funds. What the tax cuts did do was to set us on a road to income inequality that would have made even Silent Cal smile.

When he first started his presidential campaign in 1999, George W. Bush proposed his big tax cuts as a way of giving back the Clinton budget surplus to tax payers at a time of prosperity; then when the economy went south, he said the tax cuts would stimulate economic recovery. Good times, bad times -- the solution is always another tax cut. And, of course, we are still suffering the effects of Bush's tax-cutting, regulation-phobic presidency.

As David Leonhardt reported in The New York Times on Sept. 15, there is an accumulating body of data that the tax cuts of the last 30 years have not generated much economic growth. Republicans like Paul Ryan have to resort to almost gymnastic rhetorical contortions and strained counter-factuals to explain away the evidence.

Republicans can't seem to recognize good ideas even when they see them. As J. D. Kleinke of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in the Times on Sept. 30, much of the Obamacare plan involves market-based solutions to the health-care crisis. Republicans ought to love this, and yet the only "idea" they are offering about health care is to repeal the program.

The Romney campaign has been inadvertently honest about the fact that the GOP platform contains no real ideas -- new, big or otherwise. The central word Romney has used in his campaign is the verb: to restore.

It is a perfect conservative word because it suggests precisely the narrative of decline that Republicans like to tell. We were once great, now we aren't; elect us and we'll "restore" the nation to its past glory. And it reminds us that all the good ideas are in the past too.

Should we be spared a President Romney and a Romney administration -- as all the polling seems to suggest -- then conservatives will pin their defeat on Romney himself, and who could blame them. But in the end, this campaign really should be about ideas -- and the fact that the Republican party isn't offering any. Bob Dole would have a hard time filling even a small file with good Republican ideas.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State where he edits the on-line magazine "Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective." He is also the editor of the new book To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government with Oxford University Press.

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