The wonk threshold

THE WONK THRESHOLD…. There may not be an accepted definition of “wonk,” and the term itself is arguably subjective. But we have a general sense of what it means — wonks are deeply knowledgeable about a specialized field, and have the chops to bring some intellectual heft to their observations.

With this in mind, Jon Chait asked yesterday whether “the standard for Republican policy wonkery” has fallen too low. I believe it has.

This came up because Jennifer Rubin gushed yesterday over Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) depth of knowledge on trade and Latin America with this op-ed.

Approving free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea would be a boon to our economy, create jobs for Floridians, and help solidify our alliances with these steadfast allies. The agreements with Colombia and Panama in particular would boost Florida’s economy, where over 1 million Floridians remain out of work. Unfortunately, the president has inexplicably allowed these golden economic opportunities to languish by not submitting the deals to Congress for up-or-down votes.

An unacceptable consequence of America taking our Latin American neighbors for granted is that China, among other nations, has capitalized on our complacency, signed their own deals, and made great strides to surpass America as the region’s leading trade partner…. Our Latin American allies are not going to wait around forever for America to get its act together….

Chait sees this as “pure boilerplate, something you get by waking up any press secretary in the middle of the night and urging them to attack the free trade stance of a Democratic president.”

And it is. Indeed, there’s nothing especially interesting or unique about Rubio’s piece, and given how the Hill usually works, the senator probably didn’t even write it himself.

Which brings us back to Chait’s larger question: “Is there some analytical twist I’m missing in Rubio’s argument, or is the standard for Republican policy wonkery just that low?”

It’s the latter. We seem to have reached the point at which Republican officials who can speak in complete sentences, and seem as if they might have read a book at some point, are held up as specialized experts, worthy of admiration.

But that’s absurd. A year ago, National Review praised Rubio as “a true policy wonk” for no apparent reason. A few months later, Politico told readers that Eric Cantor, the dim-witted House GOP leader, is “a serious wonk,” an assertion bolstered by nothing. We’re routinely told that Paul Ryan is a budget “wonk,” despite the fact that his numbers don’t come close to adding up.

To be sure, there are conservative wonks, whose work deserves to be taken seriously. But when talking about Congress, if every GOP lawmaker who can read and write is awarded the wonk label, the threshold has been set too low.