WASHINGTON -- Are conservatives interested in new ideas, or are they merely infatuated with the idea of new ideas? Are they really reappraising their approach, or are they trying to adjust their image just enough to win elections?
One way to look at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference is as a face-off between the “No Surrender” cries of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the “Let’s Try to Win” rhetoric of such politicians as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Seen in this light, Republicans truly are having the internal debate that Mr. Ryan called “messy,” “noisy” and “a little bit uncomfortable.”
But Mr. Ryan may have revealed more than he intended when he downplayed conservative divisions. “For the most part,” Mr. Ryan insisted, “these disagreements have not been over principles or even policies. They’ve been over tactics.”
In which case, this is not an argument over ideas at all, but a discussion of packaging.
Mr. Christie was quite direct on this point. “We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” he said. “Let us come out of here resolved not only to stand for our principles. Let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”
To which Mr. Cruz had a ready reply: that Republicans are better off saying what they actually think. With Mr. Cruz, at least, you get the unvarnished right-wing gospel, preached without equivocation.
No doubt there’s intellectual ferment among the right’s leading thinkers and some of its politicians, often reflected in the pages of the conservative journal National Affairs. Conservatives seem keen these days to acknowledge the need for some kind of social safety net. And while many on the right still deny or dismiss the problem of growing economic inequality, many are at least grappling with the crisis in upward mobility.
But so far, it’s hard to find evidence of any fundamental rethinking. Conservatives want to say that they’re devoted to more than the well-being of the wealthy, but their tax and regulatory policies remain focused on alleviating the burdens on the “job creators,” i.e., the rich.
They say they want to do better by the poor, but the thrust of their budgets is to reduce assistance — sometimes savagely, as in the case of food stamps — to those who need it.
Mr. Ryan no longer refers to social programs as a “hammock” for the idle, but he still wants to cut them. And he cited Eloise Anderson, a Wisconsin state official, to tell a story in his CPAC speech — it got more attention than he now wishes — about “a young boy from a very poor family” who “would get a free lunch from a government program.”
The young man “told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown-paper bag just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown-paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.”
Mr. Ryan didn’t understand that this was a made-up story. After reporting by the Wonkette blog and The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, Ms. Anderson admitted that she had never spoken to the boy. She picked up the story from a TV interview.
Worse, she then twisted a tale first told by supporters of government nutrition assistance that had absolutely nothing to do with school lunch programs.
But what’s most troubling here is that it did not occur to Mr. Ryan to check the story because it apparently didn’t occur to him that most kids on free lunch programs have parents who do care about them. They just can’t afford to put a nutritious lunch in a brown paper bag every day.
Mr. Ryan was so eager to make an ideological statement about family structure that he was not bothered by the implicit insult he was issuing to actual families of children on the lunch program. A little more empathy could have saved Mr. Ryan a lot of trouble. He apologized for the factual error but not for the insult.
Mr. Ryan certainly doesn’t sound like Ted Cruz, and one can hope that the visits Mr. Ryan has been making to poor neighborhoods will eventually move him to reconsider his attitude toward government programs.
But for now, I am inclined to respect Mr. Cruz for giving us his views straight and not pretending he’s manufacturing new ideas. If conservative rethinkers such as Mr. Ryan have more than rhetorical and tactical differences with Mr. Cruz, they have yet to prove it.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne).