It really was important for Republicans to get more serious about entitlements and to shake off their Bush-era blitheness about deficits. The principles of many Tea Partiers really were an improvement over the transparent cynicism of a Tom DeLay.
But if DeMint-style retrenchment was necessary for Republicans, it wasn’t anywhere near sufficient. The conservatism of 2011 and 2012 had a lot to say about the long-term liabilities of the American government but far too little to say about the most immediate anxieties of American citizens, from rising health care costs to stagnating wages to the socioeconomic malaise spreading across the country’s working class. Neither the Reagan legacy nor the current conservative catechism holds the solutions to these problems; they require Republicans to apply their principles more creatively, and think about policy anew.
So it’s fitting, perhaps, that the same week DeMint announced his departure from the Senate, one of the conservatives he fostered gave a speech that tried to do just that. This was Marco Rubio, who used an address at the Jack Kemp Foundation dinner to speak frankly about problems that too many Republicans have ignored these last four years — the “opportunity gap” opening between the well educated and the rest, the barriers to upward mobility, the struggles of the poor.