Rubio had his defenders, but few were as clear about the philosophic issues at stake as his detractors. Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute praised Rubio for “trying to address one of the problems that have debilitated our politics,” while AEI’s Michael R. Strain went a bit further and agreed with the senator’s shift from emphasizing the entrepreneur to championing the worker. The Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass, however, went straight at Rubio’s critics at the philosophic level, contending that liberty was not the only good the federal government should be concerned with when setting economic policy.

This is the crux of the GOP’s debate. Libertarians, who are philosophically opposed to any federal government action, have insinuated themselves into the conservative intellectual infrastructure over the past three decades. As a result, Republican intellectual orthodoxy now says that taxes can never be raised; that any government program is bound to fail and, hence, should be opposed; and that the only direction government spending should move is backward. Hence the 2011 spectacle where every candidate for president in “the party of Reagan” said they would oppose a hypothetical deal that raised taxes by $1 for every $10 in public spending cuts.

Reagan himself always made such deals, arguing against the conservative “ultras” who opposed them. But Reagan’s actual thought seems to no longer matter to the libertarian high priests of what they still call Reaganism, and whose holy writ determines who is orthodox and who is anathema.