This might be the most positive and hopeful post about the Republican Party I ever write. Paul Krugman’s pet insult – “Very Serious Person” – is more important to understanding America’s policy failures than most people realize, and goes well beyond economic illiteracy. More than anything, without understanding VSPness (henceforth “vispy”) – one can never comprehend how the Democratic Party screwed up so much in the past five years.
When I say “screwed up”, I’m not talking about Larry Summers or Bob Rubin, easily the most visible anathema of the Party’s left wing. The Democrats are vertically infected with vispiness in a way the Republican party is not. While many often talk about the GOP as a more “hierarchal” party (considering the nature of their primary selection process) – Republicans are freer and more iconoclastic.
What the neoliberal wing of Rubin is to Democrats, the neoconservative wing of Wolfowitz is to Republicans. But the establishment neocons are dead. Or will be dead soon (have you seen Dick Cheney or John McCain recently?) They inspire no one within the Republican ranks and reek of responsibility for America’s most embarrassing decade.
Let me be clear, I’m not (necessarily) a radical left-wing critic of the Democrat party. I want Summers at the Fed and I think Rubin has suffered far more blame than he deserves. But I worry about what it takes to get to the top. Not for the clearly brilliant young hotshots like Summers (one of Harvard’s youngest tenured faculty) but for the dumber tools in the shed. The guys who went to all the top schools, did all the right things, are smarter than the average guy, but are still kind of dumb. These are the people that have no original ideas of their own, but move the party forward in their own minuscule way. They are the people reporting to the guy reporting to the guy (reporting to the guy) reporting to Tim Geithner. Maybe they held a policy job at a think tank or made it through lower positions at Goldman. Or something.
The only way for this bland hero to advance in the Democratic Party, is to tow the Very Serious Party line. This will never bring them to the top, but it will secure their position as a kinda-sorta-maybe top official within the Democratic Party. There is no room for iconoclastic ideas. Not if you want a safe path to the top. You can’t ever become an iconoclastic insider.
Ron Wyden is a great example (except he’s by no means dumb). He is hugely influential, if only by forcing the Party a tiny-weeny bit to the left, but will never ever play a role at the top echelons of the Democratic Party. Wyden’s influence starts and ends with his status as an elected representative of the State of Oregon. Elizabeth Warren: ditto. They influence ideas, and perhaps even inspire the left-leaning youngsters in the party, but will never emerge as serious players in the Executive Branch.
Republicans are nothing like that. There is no party line to tow. Sure they have profoundly idiotic ideas and their constituents have a donkey’s understanding of economics. (Not that Democrats are that much better). But the kicker is the only way to become a Republican champion is iconoclastic flair. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and even Sarah Palin are hardly “establishment” in the sense of representing prestigious ideas. Not good ideas, prestigious ideas. That is the definition of establishment.
John McCain was never the “maverick”. The Tea Party and Sarah Palin are. The Republican party demands a level of fresh thinking absent from the upper-middle ranking Democrats. A great example is the budget passed by the Senate Democrats (boring: a laughing matter, really) and the imaginatively forceful one passed by the House Progressives, which is comparable in magnitude to the Ryan Budget. The only difference is the House Progressives are a joke to Whig Democrats. The Ryan Budget is taken seriously among the Republicans.
A lot of people – liberals, wonks, “reformist” conservatives, whatever – treat the Ryan kind of nonsense as just a radical idea that has no hope. That is true, but only one side of the coin. On the other is proof that Republicans can pursue fresh and different ideas: ranging all the way from Chris Christie’s loud personality to Paul Ryan’s nutty-nutty budget.
That’s not to say any of the ideas are good, or that we’d be better off with a Ryan Budget than the not-here-not-there-blah Senate Budget (we wouldn’t). However, the Seriousness that plagues the Democrats has handcuffed them from embracing a single idea that the wonkish left deems to be smart. Land taxes. Single-payer healthcare (do you even hear them talk about it). Immigration permit markets. Oil nationalization. ENDING THE DRUG WAR. (Oh, no, let’s just wait seven years and when our approval ratings fall we should make some funny noises about those mandated minimums. Is there any reason the joker of a half-man that is Eric Holder still has a job).
Rather, the biggest debate of the day is whether a handful of people pay 35% or 39%. As if that matters. The Democrats are engaged in a hopeless match of maintaining the ’90s status-quo (which, granted, was quite good) not of policy, but of intellectual climate. At least the Republicans are redefining the debate.
My argument is hardly a call for more leftism in the party. I was hopeful about Elizabeth Warren but she’s been a real disappointment on monetary policy, which she clearly misunderstands. I want more rightism and leftism. The Democrats have poisoned themselves into believing compromise is the arithmetic mean of two dipshit ideas.
Paul Krugman, to my knowledge, has not said any of this, but has insinuated its implications in a way few other commenters acknowledge. His qualms go – almost 25 years after he won the John Bates Clark award – well beyond the economic. They are cultural and political.
I have never been inside the back rooms of Democratic policy action. But I can only imagine a few ex-think tank dudes sucking up to whatever they think Obama or Sperling or Geithner or Summers wants to hear.
In Rand Paul or Ted Cruz I see silliness. Mutated, confused, idiotic silliness. And that the Republican Party is tolerant to such makes me fearful for my own.