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Running on Empty

Why we miss serious conservatives.

For all of their differences, the Republican candidates agree on one thing: They don’t like President Obama’s policies. That’s fine. Elections are supposed to be about clear choices. And, while we have found plenty to admire in Obama’s tenure, we too believe that there are many issues on which he has fallen depressingly short. He didn’t act swiftly or aggressively enough to improve the economy. He was too deferential to Wall Street. He’s been too lenient toward dictators and too slow to unequivocally align the United States with those seeking freedom the world over. Some of these critiques resonate with the left, some with the right, and some with both.

But what would the Republicans do instead? It’s hard to know—and that’s a pretty damning statement, given the timing. The Democrats running to replace George W. Bush were no less vehement, or unanimous, in their rejection of everything Bush. But, by this point in the last election cycle, they had also issued detailed and substantive plans for how they would govern and how they would address the nation’s most pressing problems. They had sketched out proposals for improving education, rewriting the tax code, and reforming health care. And, in their numerous debates, they spent a great deal of time arguing about these proposals. The arguments over policy—in particular, the dispute between Obama and Hillary Clinton over health care mandates (which Paul Starr revisits in this issue on page 11)—were so substantive that the wonkery drew mockery from “Saturday Night Live.”

The contrast between Democrats in 2007 and Republicans in 2011 is most striking on health care. Candidate Obama did more than provide programmatic details when he laid out a plan. He provided figures, including estimates of the program’s eventual cost. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, like the rest of the Republican field, have spent a lot of time pledging to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But they’ve been far more sketchy about what they’d put in its place, saying merely that they’d support familiar conservative initiatives like allowing the purchase of health care across state lines. Numbers—how much the program might cost, how many people it would reach, and that sort of thing—are virtually nonexistent.

Of course, the issue landscape has changed since 2008: The economy is far and away the most important subject this time around. Last time, it was something of an afterthought until the end of the campaign, when the housing market cratered and the financial crisis began. But, even here, Gingrich and Romney remain pretty vague. Both candidates have made proposals for tax reform, for example, but beyond that they’ve offered mostly slogans. Romney’s brief on the economy seems superficially more detailed than Gingrich’s, if only because it consists of more than 150 pages and boasts 59 ideas. But it spends about as much time criticizing Obama as laying out new proposals. And those ideas are, again, surprisingly devoid of dollar or employment figures. (One exception is a forecast of how many jobs would be created by expanding off-shore drilling: The prediction, of 1.2 million new jobs, appears to come from an estimate published by the lobbying arm of the oil industry.)

Meanwhile, the foreign policy discussion on the Republican side has been incoherent—equal parts interventionist, dovish, isolationist, and nationalist. Would Romney and Gingrich practice a foreign policy in line with the vision of George W. Bush? Would they return to the GOP foreign policy stance of the 1990s, which led Republicans to oppose foreign interventions and nation-building? Or is there some other broad vision that would animate their approach? Given the contradictory, difficult-to-parse signals generally being sent by the major candidates, it’s impossible to say.

The contrast between the current moment and the last campaign may, in part, reflect the philosophical differences between the party bases. Liberals in 2008 didn’t simply want to throw Bush out of office. They wanted, among other things, to fight climate change and to make health care more affordable. Modern conservatism, by contrast, holds that government is best when it does least.

Yet it has not always been the case that conservatives have lacked for detailed and concrete solutions to the nation’s problems. Sometimes, they have come up with creative proposals that have ended up being championed by liberals. (See, for instance, Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts. Or cap and trade, which was once seen as a market-driven alternative to government regulation. Or charter schools.) Sadly, such substantive conservative thinking has been almost completely absent from this campaign. Whatever you think of Barack Obama, so far he is the only candidate in this race who is taking the presidency seriously.

This article appeared in the December 29, 2011, issue of the magazine.