The NYT has a good piece today on the extent to which Republicans used to support high-speed rail, and the fact that GOP presidential hopefuls like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry used to be some of the policy’s biggest champions.

“If you want to be the most competitive country in the world in 2040 or 2050, you have to think large,” Mr. Gingrich said in 2009 at a videotaped forum sponsored by the National Governors Association and Building America’s Future, an infrastructure advocacy group. Mr. Gingrich’s large thought was for America to build high-speed magnetic levitation trains, as China has.

“Let’s go ahead and be really bold, and go head to head with the Chinese in developing and implementing maglev trains that move at 280, 300, 320 miles an hour,” Mr. Gingrich said in his speech, which, a transportation Web site, wrote about recently. “And you suddenly change all sorts of equations about how this country operates.”

Before the politics of rail was scrambled in recent years, Republican support for high-speed rail was not unusual. As recently as 2004, the Republican Party platform stated that “Republicans support, where economically viable, the development of a high-speed passenger railroad system as an instrument of economic development and enhanced mobility.”

All of this, of course, makes perfect sense. HSR development would create jobs, improve the nation’s energy policy, improve innovation, relieve traffic congestion, and even help the environment. There’s no reason this has to be a partisan issue, and for many years, it wasn’t.

Then President Obama said he agreed with Republicans on this — at which point Republicans decided high-speed rail was a communist plot that must be fought at all costs. Indeed, my favorite sentence in the Times article was this one: “Spokesmen for Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry did not respond to e-mails seeking comment about their views on rail.”

After having touted the policy, these guys are no longer even willing to mention the fact that they agree — or at least used to agree — with Democrats on this policy.

And as it turns out, it’s not just rail. Politico reported that the Republican presidential field is completely unwilling to talk about transportation and the nation’s infrastructure needs. Politico “reached out to all seven of the Republican 2012 campaigns; none chose to flesh out infrastructure positions.”

The problem, apparently, is that the issue involves public investments, and Republican voters don’t like public investments, no matter how many jobs this would create, or how much this would strengthen the country.

Ideally, this is what a presidential nominating contest is for: candidates identify areas of public need and discuss what they’d do to address those needs. But the Republican process in 2012 has nothing to do with problem-solving or public policy; it’s about proving fealty to an ideology.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.