I watched Bill Clinton’s speech last night with my wife, an immigrant who didn’t grow up following American politics. As someone who knows much more about policy than I do, she loved the speech and said, “if only more politicians would explain policy like that!” I doubt many students of American politics would contest my reply: “There’s only one American politician who can explain policy like that.” In particular, the Republicans have nobody who’s even close.
Jonathan Bernstein nails the reasons this is no accident. Read the whole thing, but here’s the kernel:
Granted, political talent could show up for either party. But a Republican these days couldn’t do what Clinton did tonight, because Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.
It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are! But a politician who tried to stick to those would be competing with the Glenn Becks of the party, and the Rush Limbaughs, and the Newt Gingriches, and the “facts” that those party leaders constantly trot out. Democrats, to be sure, have to compete with some fringe voices who have a dubious grasp of facts and policy, but for whatever reason those voices are kept on the fringe. That’s just not the case for Republicans.
It’s not always been that way. But that’s how it is now.
And so Paul Ryan gets a reputation as a substantive Republican…while repeating the most nutty myths about budgets and health care reform (yes, a David Obey would or a Henry Waxman will give a very partisan interpretation of contested facts; how often do they just make stuff up?). And so Republicans celebrate the policy ignorance of a Herman Cain or a Sarah Palin. And so Republicans don’t even bother forcing George W. Bush to show he knows anything about policy or government before they nominate him; to the contrary, they argue that he’s a better president because he’s not bogged down by all of that stuff and can better govern from his instincts.
You’re not going to get a Bill Clinton if your party gives no incentives at all for a smart youngster to try to become that sort of politician. Truth is, a Republican who really knew policy well enough to make the arguments Clinton made tonight would have to hide it.
One of Jonathan’s commenters (“swain”) notes that Romney illustrates the thesis perfectly. I’d expand on that.
Romney is very intelligent. And while Harvard Business School’s one-page-case method of alleged education seems designed to unfit people for serious reflection and a sense of context, it shouldn’t prevent Romney from grasping short strings of policy, provided they fit on a PowerPoint slide. Yet Romney pretends to believe in impossible budgets, and says that global warming is real, sort of, but that government policy should go forward as if we didn’t know whether it were real or not.
On one level, anybody who’s tried to be both smart and popular has got to feel for this guy. While there’s no easy way to do it, Romney’s method—pretending to be stupider than you are—must surely be the easiest. (That’s why it’s the prevalent strategy at many a high school; the other common strategy, class clown, works less well in politics, Al Franken notwithstanding.) Benjamin Franklin’s cultivated ability to make his genius go down easier via a homespun morality that he didn’t believe in and a calculated extroversion that he never found natural stands as a model of sorts, but an ethically complex one. (Judith Shklar’s defense of hypocrisy, referring to Franklin’s case, isn’t to everyone’s taste.) Bill Clinton’s constant practice, over years and decades, at making genuinely difficult policy ideas accessible via anecdotes, metaphors, and short sentences represents a very different model, and in democratic terms probably a more honorable one.
But Bernstein’s point remains. Clinton may be in a class by himself. But his virtue was aided by circumstance: he’s in the only American party that appreciates that class. On the other hand, there’s also choice involved. If making smart arguments were important to Romney, he wouldn’t have thrown his political ambitions into the party that roars for stupidity.