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Conservative thinkers: GOP should cut 'stale' policies loose

Is there a sea change afoot among the conservative intelligentsia?

As the Republican Party wrestles with how to reinvent itself to appeal more broadly to an increasingly diverse electorate after its two-straight presidential losses, a handful of conservative thinkers are calling upon the GOP to cast off some of its most well-worn proposals and elements of the party’s identity.

These intellectual leaders are arguing that the GOP must embraces changes in policy. That’s significantly different than what the official organs of the Republican Party have said, which is that the party needn’t change its core policies and positions so much as frame them in a way that’s more appealing to more voters.

Take, for example, a post on Monday by Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute, who argued that Republicans should abandon their pursuit of a flat tax, a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution or the gold standard – three ideas that have long found advocates on the right.

“Today, the top marginal tax rate is 40 percent, and inflation is 2 percent. Health-care spending and the debt have both risen by nearly 80 percent as a share of output. The average American is 37 years old,” wrote Pethokoukis on National Review Online. “Economics and demography require a reworking of the conservative policy portfolio. But center-right politicians in Washington keep offering same-old, same-old stale solutions.”

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That’s a sentiment similar to the one voiced by Ramesh Ponnuru on National Review in an op-ed Sunday for the New York Times. Republicans, Ponnuru wrote, should be more willing to move beyond the policy prescriptions offered three decades ago by President Ronald Reagan.

"They slavishly adhere to the economic program that Reagan developed to meet the challenges of the late 1970s and early 1980s, ignoring the fact that he largely overcame those challenges, and now we have new ones," wrote Ponnuru.

Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, both veterans of the most recent Bush administration, argued in a new piece for Commentary magazine that the GOP should learn from the centrist examples of President Bill Clinton, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose election signaled a new era for the UK’s Labour Party. They argued that Republicans’ sweeping victories in the 2010 midterm elections were an “aberration” rather than a catalyzing moment for the GOP.

Gerson and Wehner prescribed a four-step process for the GOP: Republicans, they wrote, must first renew their focus “on the economic concerns of working-and middle-class Americans;” second, “welcome rising immigrant groups;” third, “express and demonstrate a commitment to the common good;” fourth, “engage vital social issues forthrightly but in a manner that is aspirational rather than alienating;” and fifth, “harness their policy views to the findings of science.”

They wrote that many of the existing Republican presidential frontrunners in 2016 are equipped to deliver that message.

But: “Their challenge is both to refine and relaunch the Republican message, to propose policies that symbolize values and cultural understanding, to reconnect with a middle America that looks different than it once did, and to confront old attitudes, not from time to time, but every day.”