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Think Tank

Five Big Ideas from the Party of Lincoln

The original purpose of the political conventions of the major parties in the United States was to nominate a presidential candidate and adopt a party platform. The invention of television changed all of that. The leaders of both parties were smart, and quickly realized their conventions were opportunities for free national media. So political conventions have become highly choreographed spectacles that are intended to present the party to the general public in the best possible light. It is no surprise that these stage-managed coronations often offer style over substance. 

On the other hand, there is still the opportunity for a substantive discussion of the issues, and that is why we'll be paying attention to both parties' conventions. In the meantime, Big Think has reached into our archive and also sourced expert opinions from around the Web to showcase the big ideas from each political party. Call it a virtual convention of ideas. Today we're starting with the Republicans.

What qualifies as a big idea in politics?

We looked at the major challenges the country is facing and then looked at solutions that have been presented that have truly transformative potential. The major challenges we've identified are the economy, health care, national security, civil rights, education, immigration, the deficit and entitlement reform. 

What qualifies as a Republican idea?

This post presents five big ideas that aren't necessarily part of the Republican platform, but have been proposed by some of the party's visionaries and most articulate voices. Some of these ideas come from party mavericks. For instance, on immigration, Senator Lindsey Graham argues that America has an enormous need for immigrants, but he wants them to be in the country legally. His proposal is not in sync with the Republican platform. And yet, Mitt Romney, the standard-bearer of the Republican party as its presumptive nominee, is not bound by the party platform either.

In fact, on the immigration issue and many other issues such as education and entitlement reform, what will ultimately be required is bipartisan consensus. If an idea's proponents are too intransigent, it will likely never become policy, and therefore does not qualify as a big idea. In other words, a big idea is one that has a high probability of becoming reality. 

On the other hand, does everyone have to agree that a big idea is a good idea? Certainly not. The list below is not intended to be exhaustive, and we invite our readers to submit other ideas as the convention unfolds, and then revisit this exercise again when the Democrats convene in Charlotte in September. 

1. Education
Expert: Chris Cerf, Commissioner of New Jersey Public Schools

Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey will be delivering the keynote address at the convention, in which we expect him to come out swinging at President Obama. We also expect Christie to address one of his signature issues, which is education reform. Christie has fought for voucher programs, the revamping of teacher tenure and evaluation systems and an increase in the number of charter schools. Charter schools are a Republican idea that has been embraced by Bill Gates and Nick Hanauer, among many others.

In the video below, Chris Cerf, Commissioner of New Jersey Public Schools, defends recent sweeping education reforms in New York City and New Jersey.

Watch the video here:

2. Medicare
Expert: David Brooks, New York Times columnist

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan's entitlement reform plan has been hotly debated and is highly controversial. Perhaps its most articulate defender is David Brooks, who in a recent column identified the issue as the most crucial one facing the country today. Brooks writes:

If you believe entitlement reform is essential for national solvency, then Romney-Ryan is the only train leaving the station.

Moreover, when you look at the Medicare reform package Romney and Ryan have proposed, you find yourself a little surprised. You think of them of as free-market purists, but this proposal features heavy government activism, flexibility and rampant pragmatism.

The federal government would define a package of mandatory health benefits. Private insurers and an agency akin to the current public Medicare system would submit bids to provide coverage for those benefits. The government would give senior citizens a payment equal to the second lowest bid in each region to buy insurance.

This system would provide a basic health safety net. It would also unleash a process of discovery. If the current Medicare structure proves most efficient, then it would dominate the market. If private insurers proved more efficient, they would dominate. Either way, we would find the best way to control Medicare costs. Either way, the burden for paying for basic health care would fall on the government, not on older Americans. (Much of the Democratic criticism on this point is based on an earlier, obsolete version of the proposal.)

3. Immigration
Expert: Senator Lindsey Graham (R-NC)

How does America continue to attract talent to help grow our economy and how do we best deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country? In calling for comprehensive immigration reform, Senator Lindsey Graham told Big Think "we're going to need immigrants as far as the eye can see." He just wants them to be here legally. 

Here is Lindsey Graham's plan:

4. Taxes
Expert: Grover Norquist, President, Americans for Tax Reform

What is the single issue with the least consensus in American politics? It's not abortion, as many Democrats oppose it and many Republicans are pro-choice. It's taxes. And when it comes to this issue, no one has more sway than Grover Norquist, who wrote a "no tax" pledge that has been signed by almost every Republican Congressman. 

Does this idea fail the "intransigent" test we laid out at the top of this post? Here's why it passes: Norquist has won the debate. Like it or not, the Bush tax cuts were extended by President Obama, who now wants to extend them again for what he defines as the middle class. We'll see whether they are renewed when we approach the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year. Until then, as Norquist tells Big Think, the issue of taxes will continue to be "the central dividing question between the two political parties."

Watch the video here:

(N.B. Norquist's support seems to have slipped since 2010, when 81 of 92 so-called Republican "Young Guns" signed the pledge. This year, it's just 45 of 83.) 

5. Health Care
Expert: Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts Governor and Presidential Candidate 

This one will no doubt get a rise out of many of you, so here goes. 

In the following video, Mitt Romney described to Big Think how his health care plan in Massachusetts ushered in a "health care revolution in America."

While the so-called Romneycare law has been amended numerous times since Romney left office, here are the basics:

The state of Massachusetts required most residents to purchase a minimum level of health care insurance. For those with incomes less than 150 percent of the federal poverty level, the state provided free insurance. 

Residents who failed to purchase health insurance lost the $219 personal exemption on their state income taxes, a penalty that was later increased to 50 percent of the cost of a standard insurance policy. This tax penalty on so-called "free-riders" is the same mechanism used in Obamacare, a fact that Romney has acknowledged. On the campaign trail today, however, Romney does not offer his plan as a model for other states, or for the federal system. 

Still, Democrats like to point out that Romneycare was the blueprint for Obamacare. When he passed his plan, Romney was asked what the difference between it and Hilary Clinton's health care plan was. Romney told reporters, "mine got passed and hers didn’t." Bottom line: as governor, Mitt Romney was a health care innovator. If he is elected President, we can expect that he will encourage the states to innovate if he is unable to repeal Obamacare as he has said he will do. 

Watch Mitt Romney describe his health care plan here:

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Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

 

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