Friday, August 08, 2008

Stupid is as stupid does

Paul Krugman, writing in Friday’s New York Times, crafts a cautionary tale about the current political landscape.

[T]he debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

Now, I don’t mean that G.O.P. politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don’t mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

Krugman reminds us of the lies told often enough in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, the media elites that happily repeated the party line, and the repercussions and recriminations that awaited those that did not. (Krugman was no doubt being self-referential. As he told a group of us last month at Netroots Nation, New York Times management came to him as late as mid-2005 and told him to “lighten up” on his criticism of George W. Bush, arguing that “the [2004 presidential] election settled some things.”) In fact, it was not until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hit home in September of 2005 that we began to see the end of the “cult of personality that lionized [Bush] as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority.” Well, at least in some circles. . . .

[T]he state of the energy debate shows that Republicans, despite Mr. Bush’s plunge into record unpopularity and their defeat in 2006, still think that know-nothing politics works. And they may be right.

Sad to say, the current drill-and-burn campaign is getting some political traction. According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Americans now favor expanded offshore drilling — and 51 percent of them believe that removing restrictions on drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

The headway Republicans are making on this issue won’t prevent Democrats from expanding their majority in Congress, but it might limit their gains — and could conceivably swing the presidential election, where the polls show a much closer race.

In any case, remember this the next time someone calls for an end to partisanship, for working together to solve the country’s problems. It’s not going to happen — not as long as one of America’s two great parties believes that when it comes to politics, stupidity is the best policy.

So, if we are to take the numbers PK cites at face value, we have to ask “Why?” Why does the insanely stupid “drill here/drill now” have any traction? Here’s what I believe:

When you are feeling the real economic pain caused by $4 gasoline, you want to hear something—anything—about what someone—anyone—is going to do about it. As much as I know and believe in the intellectual superiority of conservation measures and a shift away from a hydrocarbon economy, those that have to choose between, say, needed prescription medicines and a full tank of gas need something more tangible and immediate. And even though a tune-up and properly inflated tires might offer some a degree of savings at the pump, it still might feel like the government that let gas get so expensive is now telling consumers, “it’s your problem.”

As I discussed earlier in the week, I don’t think that addressing the gas price problem inside the Republican-defined “more oil/less worry” frame is ever going to be a winner for Democrats. Democrats need to link expensive gasoline to Bush/Cheney Administration policies (both re: the Cheney Energy Taskforce and the instability in the Middle East caused by the administration’s needless, reckless Iraq campaign), and they also need to introduce a plan that will ease some of the economic hardship felt by working Americans. (I suggested a restructuring of FICA, with a tax holiday for the first $10,400 earned by an individual, but I am open to other ideas.)

But there is probably another reason that an idea (no, it’s not really an idea, it’s really nothing more than a chant—a war chant) as lame as “drill here/drill now” just won’t die, and that is the breath of life that many Democrats (presidential nominee Obama included) have given it with talk of “compromise.”

And therein lies my biggest takeaway from the Krugman piece—and perhaps its true target audience, as well. As the conclusion makes clear, you can’t compromise with stupid. It doesn’t work from an intellectual standpoint, because to walk in that downhill direction only diminishes the credibility of your own stance. And it doesn’t work from a political angle because the party of stupid doesn’t ever agree to shake hands and call it a win-win. They will claim Republican victory (and Democratic defeat) on offshore drilling, funnel more money to their Big Oil benefactors, and then continue to bash and blame Democrats for the high cost of fuel.

It is a lesson that Krugman has gleaned from a bumper crop of stupid Republican initiatives over the last decade (two decades? three?)—he gets it. But if you read between the lines of Friday’s column, it seems he is asking why many in the Democratic leadership still do not.

(cross-posted on Daily Kos and The Seminal)

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