Original Sin

In all the generally meh reaction to Marco Rubio’s much-awaited Republican Response to the State of the Union Address, a lot of people (perhaps mesmerized by the silly “slurping” incident) missed one howler in his text that was worth underlining. Paul Krugman certainly caught it, and explained why it mattered, a lot:

The financial crisis of 2008 and its painful aftermath, which we’re still dealing with, were a huge slap in the face for free-market fundamentalists. Circa 2005, the usual suspects — conservative publications, analysts at right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, and so on — insisted that deregulated financial markets were doing just fine, and dismissed warnings about a housing bubble as liberal whining. Then the nonexistent bubble burst, and the financial system proved dangerously fragile; only huge government bailouts prevented a total collapse.

Instead of learning from this experience, however, many on the right have chosen to rewrite history. Back then, they thought things were great, and their only complaint was that the government was getting in the way of even more mortgage lending; now they claim that government policies, somehow dictated by liberals even though the G.O.P. controlled both Congress and the White House, were promoting excessive borrowing and causing all the problems.

Every piece of this revisionist history has been refuted in detail. No, the government didn’t force banks to lend to Those People; no, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t cause the housing bubble (they were doing relatively little lending during the peak bubble years); no, government-sponsored lenders weren’t responsible for the surge in risky mortgages (private mortgage issuers accounted for the vast majority of the riskiest loans).

But the zombie keeps shambling on — and here’s Mr. Rubio Tuesday night: “This idea — that our problems were caused by a government that was too small — it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.” Yep, it’s the full zombie.

It’s also pretty much the sum and substance of “Santelli’s Rant”, widely credited or blamed with launching the whole Tea Party Movement. It’s based on the rage of self-righteous, well-off people who want the inferior breeds (or as Santelli called them, the “losers”) to shut up and take their recessionary medicine instead of asking taxpayers or regulators for help.

Put aside everything else Rubio said and didn’t say on Tuesday night: his subscription to this Original Sin of the Tea Folk makes an instant mockery of his rhetorical efforts to identify himself with working stiffs. Maybe Krugman’s right and “zombie economic ideas have eaten his brain.” But the inability to acknowledge his own party’s–and yes, his own conservative movement’s–culpability for the Great Recession, and their ill-disguised efforts to make that recession good and vicious for the victims, is a moral as much as an intellectual problem.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.