Intelligence matters

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS…. In the fall of 2008, as the global economic crisis started to come into focus, then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson spent a fair amount of time talking to lawmakers from both parties. The Republican cabinet member was able to size up the intelligence and credibility of lawmakers in his own party.

Meetings with Senate Republicans were “a complete waste of time for us, when time was more precious than anything” (page 275). Ideas that Republicans do add are “unformed,” like Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor’s plan to replace TARP with an insurance program. In a rare moment of sarcasm, Paulson goes off on the minority Whip: “I got a better idea. I’m going to go with Eric Cantor’s insurance program. That’s the idea to save the day” (page 285).

This isn’t entirely new. Kevin added that last year, Paulson offered plenty of praise for Democratic officials, but considered Republicans to be “preening, ignorant, ideologues.”

Remember, this was Bush’s Treasury secretary, commenting on lawmakers from his political party, and reflecting on the fact that they appeared to be complete idiots.

I mention this in part because it’s interesting, and in part because it speaks to a larger truth — congressional Republican too often seem like they are so conspicuously unintelligent, the notion of them being in a position of power and authority during a time of crisis can be rather terrifying.

Years ago, when I was, say, 14 or 15, I had certain assumptions about the political world. I thought, for example, that members of Congress must be fairly bright, regardless of party or ideology. Even those on the far right with whom I disagreed had to be knowledgeable and well informed, I thought, because there they are, shaping federal policy of the United States government.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that the moron caucus on Capitol Hill has a few too many members. What’s more, it wasn’t until I actually worked in Washington that I realized finding a reasonably smart Republican lawmaker was nearly impossible.

This is not to say that all conservative Republicans are dumb. This is to say that conservative Republicans in Congress are dumb, or at least do a surprisingly convincing imitation of being dumb.

It wasn’t always this way.

When Reagan and congressional Republicans pushed through a major tax-cut package in 1982, it was based on a coherent economic theory. I think the theory was wrong and the policy was a mistake, but I can appreciate the fact that GOP officials at the time actually thought this through. They did their homework. To borrow a cliche from math classrooms everywhere, they showed their work.

Today, Republican calls for tax cuts are more habitual than intellectual. They can’t explain why their proposals make sense or what they hope to accomplish. There’s no economic theory or policy analysis. Tax cuts create jobs. Why? Because they do.

And if it were just tax policy, this would be easier to ignore. Tragically, we’re dealing with a Republican Party that celebrates ignorance, and has given up on the pretense of substance and depth altogether. As Paulson found, even during a crisis that risked the future of the global economy, Republican lawmakers not only had nothing intelligent to offer, but even trying to communicate with them on an adult level was a “complete waste of time.”

This has only gotten worse. Faced with an economic crisis, Republicans demanded a five-year, across-the-board spending freeze — and they still think that was a good idea. They presented a budget blueprint that offered oddly-drawn charts and no numbers. They see snow and assume global warming isn’t real. They know they’re against health care reform, but can’t explain why with anything more sophisticated than bumper-sticker slogans.

They make arguments, are confronted with evidence that their arguments are wrong, and then repeat the arguments anyway.

At the recent Q&A between President Obama and House Republicans, members repeatedly whined that Democrats refuse to take GOP proposals seriously. The truth, which the president probably felt uncomfortable saying, is that they’re right — but only because GOP proposals shouldn’t be taken seriously. They’re ridiculous.

Maybe this doesn’t matter. There’s a strong strain of anti-intellectualism in American life that may appreciate the Republican caucus’ inanity.

But I can’t help but wonder what happens when confused conservative lawmakers control the levers of government, and the nation needs an immediate, intelligent response to a crisis.