After reading a lot of nonfiction books — especially on politics — I’m not clear what I’m supposed to have learned. I’ll often go back through the book to figure out the theme. Part of this is just that I’m a bit scattered, and I’m very good at putting new data into an existing (or if the book is really good) alerted narrative. But it’s also the case that most books aren’t that well written. People do not make clear and direct arguments. And they often write 300 pages when 100 would have done the trick.
One writer I never have this problem with if Thomas Frank. Whereas other writers may see themselves as constructing an intricate web, Frank is a man with a hammer who is going to bang on the same issue page after page. Now, that would be tiring coming from a dull writer, but Frank is constantly smart and funny. And the fact that he tends to see the world the way I do probably doesn’t hurt.
I just read his 2008 book, The Wrecking Crew. He starts the book with the observation that Republicans manage the nation really badly whenever they’re in power. And his thesis is that they do this on purpose so that when the Democrats are in power, they won’t have the time or resources to enact any liberal policies. What’s more, the Democrats will be too focus on cleaning up the Republicans’ mess to do anything else.
It’s a compelling thesis. But I don’t really buy it. It sounds too much like what Republicans tell themselves about their policy failures. I think the situation is far more simple: Republicans are lousy at the jobs we elect them to do. And I believe the reason this is so is the same reason that our federal politics are so much more conservative than the people would want: our two-party constitutional democracy.
One person I greatly respect thinks this is rubbish: Jonathan Bernstein. He claims that the problem is simply that the Republicans have become a radical party. I think we can all agree on that. But the question is why. And I believe the answer is because our system does not force accountability. Neither party ever gets to run the government they way they really want to. During Obama’s first two years, even with overwhelming majorities, the bills that got passed were watered down almost to the point of uselessness.
The reason I think the Republicans have become radicalized and the Democrats have not is because the Republicans have a built in advantage in rural areas and the south. This has pushed the party more and more to the right. But since their policy choices have never been given a clear test, they can maintain plausible deniability. And even more important, the Democratic policies have never been given a clear test to show that they work. So we muddle on and there is no reason for the Republicans to moderate.
Along with the extremism in the Republicans Party has come incompetence. For one thing, a true conservative would find a very nice home in the Democratic Party. So the more reasonable Republicans just become Democrats. Even more important, a Republican who just wants his taxes kept low but doesn’t go along with the other stuff probably won’t even run, but would lose in a primary anyway. So you end up with ideologues who neither care about actual governance nor have the skills for it anyway.
There is one reason in particular that I think that the Republicans screw up government because they are incompetent rather than as an actual policy: Iraq. The Bush administration didn’t care at all that the people they were sending to rebuild the country were hopeless. In 2006, Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote, Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq. For example, “A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance — but had applied for a White House job — was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange.”
Admittedly, this incompetence is at least partially the result of not caring. But even that pushes against the idea that the Republicans are evil geniuses who are wrecking the country to harm the Democratic Party. There is a powerful lesson here, though. The end result is the same. And we have seen it during Obama’s presidency. He is the first president since Johnson to pass even the mildest of liberal legislation. And this has been met with cries of, “Socialism!” But it is a reminder that the whole process of cleaning up after the Republicans is a bad strategy that only makes the Republicans stronger. Half of Obama’s time in office was spent obsessing about the federal deficit. No time in Reagan and Bush Jr’s terms was spent worrying about the debt. We need to be more like that.
Food stamps pay for themselves!