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July 30, 2014 3:55 PM Can the Big Brains of the GOP Survive the Primaries?

By Ed Kilgore

Not a day after I wrote some uncharitable things about the emerging 2016 GOP presidential field, John Dickerson suggested that field is just bursting with brains. No, really:

What if they held a presidential campaign and a think tank broke out? House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who is considering running for president, offered his thoughts on poverty last week. Sen. Marco Rubio has been giving regular policy speeches on poverty, college loans, and helping the middle class. Former senator and GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum is promoting a book of policy proposals on education, family, and revitalizing American manufacturing. Sen. Rand Paul is offering ideas on criminal justice and will give a big foreign policy speech in the fall. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has given speeches on health care and education aimed at a national audience. His staff recently sent an email titled “policy leader” that linked to a Time piece about how he is preparing to be the candidate of ideas in 2016.

Dickerson goes on to make it clear he’s only temporarily leaving Rick Perry and Jeb Bush out of this Field of Dreams until such time as they flex their brains in public. I guess Ted Cruz and Scott Walker were left out deliberately, since they don’t at this point compare to the dazzling intellect of their potential rivals. Still:

The class of candidates for 2016 has the potential to be the most robust in almost 40 years—perhaps in modern Republican history.

At the original publication site of Dickerson’s piece, this comment appears prominently:

I love it when Slate reprints articles from The Onion.

That was my initial reaction as well. But no, this seems to be a serious assessment by Dickerson, who then quickly goes on to fret that the pressures of the nomination contest will force these brilliant candidates—clearly the twenty-first century’s answer to those early eighteenth century tilts featuring titans like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and Martin Van Buren—to dumb down their ideas.

So what is it about the ‘16 field that would so impress anyone?

Yes, Paul Ryan recently issued a significant poverty plan. But it was interesting mainly because it contradicted his own and the GOP’s earlier (and perhaps current and future) determination to decimate rather than reform or replace federal safety net programs. Its prescriptions, such as a boost in the Earned Income Tax Credit and block grants, aren’t particularly new; his EITC proposal is quite similar to the president’s in 2012.

Much the same can be said of Rubio’s poverty proposals.

And yes, Rand Paul’s (and for that matter, Rick Perry’s) recent willingness to reverse field on criminal justice sentencing policies is important. But it hardly takes an act of genius to understand that long mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes have failed in every respect other than high occupancy rates for prisons.

Bobby the Brainiac Jindal is perhaps the worst example of bold innovative thinking in the GOP, since he’s in the process of recycling every old conservative policy pet rock in existence.

And Rick Santorum? I admit I haven’t rushed out to read his latest tome (Blue-Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works). But he’s been mainly notable in the past for an American packaging of the best ideas of the Francisco Franco administration.

Dickerson is right that the pressures of the nomination contest will likely reduce the candidates to bringing out hand puppets to show their determination to plow up and salt the ground beneath every Democratic accomplishment from LBJ (if not FDR) through Barack Obama. But if we’re at the high point of conservative policy intellect looking down at the abyss of base-dictated red-meat dispensing, it’s going to be a short, quick jump into Iowa.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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