Representative Paul Ryan’s 2012 budget, released today and accompanied by an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, is a document of tremendous ambition and integrity, unlike any we have seen in our lifetime.

What it does is to restore the GOP’s reputation for intellectual vitality. This cannot be achieved through incantations or the recitation of shallow talking points; it can only be done by offering a comprehensive governing agenda along with carefully argued and compellingly articulated programs of reform. And from state houses to the United States Congress, Republicans are now “setting the public policy agenda,” as Daniel DiSalvo argues in his important essay in the current issue of COMMENTARY. (DiSalvo quotes Paul Starr, editor of the American Prospect, who admits that liberalism has become largely “defensive” and “oppositional.”)

In the 1980s, one of the Republican Party’s main sources of attraction to younger conservatives like myself was its growing reputation for intellectual seriousness. “Of a sudden,” wrote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” Two years ago the Republican Party was flat on its back (“These days, Republicans have the desperate aura of an endangered species,” Time announced in a May 7, 2009, cover story). But the GOP—thanks to Governors like Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie and Members of Congress like Paul Ryan—has once again become the “party of ideas.” Conservatism, not contemporary liberalism, is the political movement that is energized and ascendant. Its most responsible voices have become advocates for modern, accountable, and responsive institutions, limited government, and therefore self-government.

For two years President Obama, a man of the left whose stated purpose was to “transform” America, had his way. But he badly overreached; Republicans have pushed back with vigor and passion and now, thanks to Ryan’s Path to Prosperity, a compelling governing alternative. So here we are at a political and philosophical inflection point, where issues of first principles are being debated and decided. There are worse things that can happen in a republic.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.