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The Candidate of Bad Ideas Versus the Candidate of No Ideas The Candidate of Bad Ideas Versus the Candidate of No Ideas

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The Candidate of Bad Ideas Versus the Candidate of No Ideas

Parsing the unhappy choice between Romney and Obama on Tuesday.


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Obama attend the 67th annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on Oct. 18 at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York.   (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Where do you even start in picking the worst of the really bad, discredited ideas that form the core of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign? My personal favorite is the moment when the GOP nominee, during his acceptance speech in Tampa, Fla., smugly dismissed climate science, even as it was about to make him look like a buffoon. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” Romney said, pausing with a studied deadpan as the crowd chortled at this obvious liberal mush. “My promise ... is to help you and your family.”  

Two months later, Sandy—transformed from a storm into a superstorm partly by the rise of the oceans, according to scientists—wreaked havoc on millions of families on the Eastern Seaboard and left more than 100 people dead and millions powerless or homeless. It also amounted to the last bit of proof that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg needed before he turned his back, finally, on the party of fantasists and fanatics he used to call home. “I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics,” the former Republican wrote last week in endorsing President Obama.

Then there is the central plank of Romney’s plan for reviving the U.S. economy: more tax cuts. We’ve been hearing about the healing properties of this economic elixir at least since Ronald Reagan’s day, but for the past several decades Americans have also been conducting a real-world experiment that has put it to the test. And the evidence is in: It’s snake oil. Tax cuts for “wealth creators” simply don’t grow the economy any faster. Going back to 1945, there is no “clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth,” according to a September report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. “Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth.” Most recently, we know the giant Bush tax cuts created zero job growth in the “lost decade” of the 2000s, the slowest growth decade in the postwar period. Deficits have gone up more in the Republican presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush than under Democrats, and Romney’s neverland plan guarantees the deficits will explode once more.

Yet Romney and other leading Republicans who support him are still playing the mountebank, foisting their fraudulent products on the public. And they will not brook facts to the contrary. Recently, in an act that was unprecedented for the Congressional Research Service, senior Republican senators pressured its deputy director into squelching that very measured September report on tax cuts, which was removed from the CRS website. Its author, public-finance specialist Thomas Hungerford, says he was not even contacted by his superiors before the GOP’s Ministry of Truth shoved his report down the memory hole. (Hungerford has since been asked to explain his use of certain variables, but he said in an interview with National Journal that this will not change the conclusions of his report. A CRS spokeswoman, Janine D’Addario, said that “the entire report is being reviewed,” and “I don’t want to speculate on whether it is going to be put back up” on the site.)

This is no longer real economics, or even real political debate (during Reagan’s day the GOP at least engaged in a healthy battle between supply-siders championing tax cuts and traditional fiscal conservatives worried about deficits). It is cultism, even intellectual fascism. Even the relatively conservative Economist--“a newspaper with no love for big government,” as it describes itself--decided recently it could not endorse the “cloud-cuckoo-land” thinking being proposed by a Republican candidate who “wants to start with huge tax cuts (which will disproportionately favor the wealthy), while dramatically increasing defense spending.… Mr. Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says. “

So that’s what you have on one side. You may be impressed with Romney personally, but it’s important to know you’re going to be electing the intellectual equivalent of Galileo’s grand inquisitor and the discoverer of Piltdown Man.

What about the other side? The degeneration of conservative thinking into flat-earth nonsense may be distressing, but the intellectual vacuum within the Democratic Party doesn’t offer much hope either. After withering criticism, Obama finally decided to issue a “Blueprint for America’s Future” in late October. But it really just amounted to a recycling of the intellectual small ball he’s been playing for the last two years since the heyday of his health care reform and stimulus package (the only two big new things he’s done on the economy: the latter being an emergency measure; the former being Ted Kennedy’s idea, via formerly moderate Massachusetts Mitt).

Yes, you have to give Obama a lot of credit for cleaning up the Augean mess left behind by George W. Bush’s own bad ideas, and for stealthily importing some good investment-for-the-future ideas like the promotion of green technology (albeit not Solyndra, obviously) into his stimulus and other policies.

But there’s been little since. Obama blames this on Republican resistance, but frankly I’m still not quite sure what he means by “nation-building at home.” If he wins reelection, it won’t because he has great alternative ideas to Romney—his virtual silence on climate change during the campaign is more good evidence—but largely because he is simply a default choice for many unenthusiastic voters.

For the Democratic Party, this bespeaks a larger problem here that goes beyond Obama’s second term. Even leading Democrats such as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley say the party has failed to set the agenda for the past 30 years--to come up with a powerful new message to counter “Reaganomics.” “Since Reagan [the Republicans] have done a very good job of setting the frame,” O’Malley, one of a small handful of leading Democrats who are spoken of as potential successors to Obama in 2016, told me in an interview before the Democratic convention. “That the enemy is government. The enemy is taxes. …. Too many of us started trying to adopt their message and repackage it as our own.”

Hence in the last two years Obama has allowed Republicans to make the deficit (most of which is George W. Bush’s) the central topic of discussion, just as Bill Clinton was once forced to “triangulate” against big government. Fearful of the big-government stigma, the Obama campaign has even shrunk from trying to promote its signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, to the American people, despite vindication from the Supreme Court, which upheld the health care law in June. 

Can Obama manage to coast back into office on nothing more than a promise of play-it-safe pragmatism? How many really bad, debunked ideas can Romney stand for and still be elected president? I don’t know the answers to those questions. We’ll find out on Tuesday. But either way, it’s not a happy choice.

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