The smartest fellow in the room

The anti-intellectual/ anti-policy wonk  trends on the Right and within the Republican Party has real consequences. It leaves politicians and voters and citizens vulnerable to charlatans and snake oil salesmen, simply because they speak like they know what they are talking about. I am referring specifically of Newt Gingrich, who finally ended his Presidential campaign last week (officially) but also of the latest GOP smarty pants Rep. Paul Ryan, who become an person of importance within the party simply because he sounds like the smartest fellow in the room.

This is the essence of how Gingrich became Speaker of the House and ultimately why his Presidential campaign was able to last as long as it did with any kind of credibility. In a party bereft of ideas other than saying “no” all the time, the man who has an idea, or something of that nature will automatically get an audience, even if a lot of what he says is bunk. Gingrich’s welfare schemes of free laptops for everyone or government-run orphanages or moon colonies are well known to anyone who pays attention and in Tea Party world should have been automatic grounds for dismissal of candidacy (at least the moon colony idea did him in in Florida). But at various points in the 2011-12 campaign Gingrich was a serious candidate, leading in the polls and winner of South Carolina and Georgia and runner-up in some other states.  And this was some 15 years after he was dumped by his own House colleagues after leading them to their first majority in over 40 years.

There’s still a latent power in ideas in politics, albeit an always overrated one by Gingrich and his kind. After all, ideas and principals have certainly have been a big help to Ron Paul’s campaigns because there’s certain appeal to a candidate who doesn’t sound poll-driven politician, says what’s on his mind instead of repeating the same ideological dogma and comes up with interesting or thought provoking things to say. That doesn’t mean they’ll win, however. Certainly Mitt Romney has made a career out  making his lack of ideals and principals an actual selling point of his. But at least ideas can get one’s foot in the door and establishes credibility before other factors of political viability kick in.

The same is true for Ryan. Because he’s one of the few numbers crunchers on the GOP side, his budget had immediate credibility, not just with his colleagues but with deficit-minded centrists chattering classes looking for such ideas from the Right.  (It says something about the Romney campaign that it’s biggest selling point is someone else’s budget.)  But there’s a reason why even Ron Paul and several other Republican U.S. House members voted against the Ryan Budget when it came to a vote on the House floor. It’s a political document (as most budgets usually area) rather than a serious attempt at fiscal policy. It takes care of all the party factions like the supply-siders (massive tax cut), the Tea Partiers (huge cuts in social spending) the hawks (massive increases in the defense budget), senior citizens (Ryan’s privatization of Medicare for those under 55). How this adds up to a balanced budget is anyone’s guess but in Ryan’s case his bizarre mixture of “Kempism” (he used to work for Jack Kemp’s think tank Empower America) and Ayn Rand ideals, really is overlooked because he’s one of the few Republican whose actually offered something tangible to chew over instead of just ideology.

There’s a joke his House colleagues once told about Gingrich that goes when he first went to work for the House Republican Campaign Committee there were told file cabinets in the office, one for “Newt’s Ideas” which was full and one which said “Newt’s Good Ideas” which was empty. Ideas alone should not be strict selling point in politics and but in the absence of any coming from the politicians themselves not to mention the to think tanks which are there to service them (but who mostly spend their time backing up the ideology), those persons who like to think off the top of their heads are going to get the most serious attention regardless if they out to be no more than political alchemists.


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