NEW YORK — Almost 40 years have passed since Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a serious intellectual turned influential politician — made waves by declaring, “Of a sudden, Republicans have become a party of ideas.”
He didn’t say that they were good ideas; but the GOP seemed to him to be open to new thinking in a way Democrats weren’t.
But that was a long time ago. Today’s GOP is a party of closed minds, hostile to expertise, aggressively uninterested in evidence, whose idea of a policy argument involves loudly repeating the same old debunked doctrines. Paul Ryan’s “innovative” proposals of 2011 (cut taxes and privatize Medicare) were almost indistinguishable from those of Newt Gingrich in 1995.
Meanwhile, Democrats have experienced an intellectual renaissance. They have emerged from their 1990s cringe; they’re no longer afraid to challenge conservative pieties; and there’s a lot of serious, well-informed intraparty debate about issues from health care to climate change.
You don’t have to agree with any of the various Medicare for All plans, or proposals for a Green New Deal, to recognize that these are important ideas receiving serious discussion.
The question is whether our media environment can handle a real party of ideas. Can news organizations tell the difference between genuine policy wonks and poseurs like Ryan? Are they even willing to discuss policy rather than snark about candidates’ supposed personality flaws?
Which brings me to the case of Elizabeth Warren, who is probably today’s closest equivalent to Moynihan in his prime.
Like Moynihan, she’s a serious intellectual turned influential politician. Her scholarly work on bankruptcy and its relationship to rising inequality made her a major player in policy debate long before she entered politics herself. Like many others, I found one of her key insights — that rising bankruptcy rates weren’t caused by profligate consumerism, that they largely reflected the desperate attempts of middle-class families to buy homes in good school districts — revelatory.
She has also proved herself able to translate scholarly insights into practical policy. Full disclosure: I was skeptical about her brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. I didn’t think it was a bad idea, but I had doubts about how much difference a federal agency tasked with policing financial fraud would make. But I was wrong: Deceptive financial practices aimed at poorly informed consumers do a lot of harm, and until President Donald Trump sabotaged it, the bureau was by all accounts having a hugely salutary effect on families’ finances.
And Warren’s continuing to throw out unorthodox policy ideas, like her proposal that the federal government be allowed to get into the business of producing some generic drugs. This is the sort of thing that brings howls of derision from the right, but that actual policy experts consider a valuable contribution to the discussion.
Is there anyone like Warren on the other side of the aisle? No. Not only aren’t there any GOP politicians with comparable intellectual heft, there aren’t even halfway competent intellectuals with any influence in the party. The GOP doesn’t want people who think hard and look at evidence; it wants people like, say, “economist” Stephen Moore, who slavishly reaffirm the party’s dogma, even if they can’t get basic facts straight.
Does all of this mean that Warren should be president? Certainly not — a lot of things determine whether someone will succeed in that job, and intellectual gravitas is neither necessary nor sufficient. But Warren’s achievements as a scholar/policymaker are central to her political identity, and clearly should be front and center in any reporting about her presidential bid.
But, of course, they aren’t. What I’m seeing are stories about whether she handled questions about her Native American heritage well, or whether she’s “likable.”
This kind of journalism is destructively lazy, and also has a terrible track record. I’m old enough to remember the near-universal portrayal of George W. Bush as a bluff, honest guy, despite the obvious lies underlying his policy proposals; then he took us to war on false pretenses.
Moreover, trivia-based reporting is, in practice, deeply biased — not in a conventional partisan sense, but in its implicit assumption that a politician can’t be serious unless he (and I mean he) is a conservative, or at most centrist, white male. That kind of bias, if it persists, will be a big problem for a Democratic Party that has never been more serious about policy, but has also never been more progressive and more diverse.
This bias needs to be called out — and I’m not just talking about Warren. Consider the contrast between the unearned adulation Ryan received and how long it took conventional wisdom to recognize that Nancy Pelosi was the most effective House speaker of modern times.
Again, I’m not arguing that Warren should necessarily become president. But she is what a serious policy intellectual looks and sounds like in 2019. And if our media can’t recognize that, we’re in big trouble.
Paul Krugman is a syndicated columnist who writes for the New York Times News Service.