From his new op-ed perch as a New York Times token two-fer (conservative and bearded), Ross Douthat bids good riddance to Arlen Specter, and reminds us that ideas are more powerful than partisanship:

douthat-profileThe Reagan-era wave of Republican policy innovation — embodied, among others, by the late Jack Kemp — has calcified in much the same way that liberalism calcified a generation ago. And so in place of hacks and deal-makers, the Republican Party needs its own version of the neoliberals and New Democrats — reform-minded politicians like Gary Hart and Bill Clinton, who helped the Democratic Party recover from the Reagan era, instead of just surviving it.

Hart, Clinton and their peers were critical of their own side’s orthodoxies, but you couldn’t imagine them jumping ship to join the Republicans. They were deeply rooted in liberal politics, but they had definite ideas for how the Democratic Party could learn from its mistakes, and from its opponents, in order to further liberalism’s deeper goals.

No equivalent faction — rooted in conservatism, but eager for innovation — exists in the Republican Party today. Maybe something like it can grow out of the listening tour that various Republican power players are embarking on this month. Maybe it can bubble up outside the Beltway — from swing-state governors like Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty, or reformists in deep-red states, like the much-touted Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Utah’s Jon Huntsman. But to succeed, such a faction will have to represent something legitimately new in right-of-center politics. It can’t sound like Rush Limbaugh — but it can’t sound like Arlen Specter either.

With apologies to William Buckley, conservatism needs to be about more than just “standing athwart history, yelling Stop.”  Sometimes it’s appropriate to yell Stop, but there’s got to be more than that.  The clash of competing ideas has served America well over the long run, and I expect it will continue to do so.

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