After spending most of the past few months either kowtowing to Donald Trump or forestalling complete anarchy in the House of Representatives, Republicans now find themselves on the verge of what they hope will be a much better position. Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is the new Speaker of the House and Senator Marco Rubio seems poised to overtake Jeb Bush as the establishment’s favored candidate. The adults, some elite Republicans hope, will soon be back in charge.
As you might imagine, this has got New York Times columnist and self-styled reasonable Republican David Brooks very excited. “So after all the meshugas,” he writes in his latest op-ed, “Republicans could wind up with two new leaders going into this election.” This, Brooks says, would be “a pretty excellent outcome for a party that has shown an amazing tendency to inflict self-harm.” Why? Because Rubio and Ryan, according to David Brooks, are not “celebrity candidates” but rather “wonks.”
At this point, the narrative that holds Ryan as some kind of über-wonk is pretty old fashioned. Brooks’ fellow Times columnist Paul Krugman deserves the most credit for exposing how insubstantial is Ryan’s alleged wonkery — at this point, he’s probably savaged the new speaker on this score dozens of times. But Brooks has never let Krugman’s proving him wrong stop him before, so why start now? As far as he’s concerned, Paul Ryan uses PowerPoint and is therefore a wonk; and that’s just that.
Rubio, too, has previously been described as at least a pseudo-wonk. A few years ago, in fact, when some of the less politically savvy policy journalists out there were falling for the “reformicon” PR campaign, Rubio’s embrace of George W. Bush-style tax cuts was greeted by some as proof of his wonk chops. Ditto his support for transferring responsibility for the safety net to the states, which he would do by giving them so-called block grants. Brooks breezes over the former and focuses on the latter, while also praising Rubio for supporting wage subsidies and an expanded EITC.
Then, as now, the problem with depicting Rubio this way is simple: It’s just not true. Describing a return to Bush’s deficit-financed tax cutting as fresh and wonky is self-evidently absurd; and while Rubio’s interest in a bigger EITC is laudable, there’s reason to worry his expansion would come at the expense of those who benefit from the policy currently. And in an era when many low-wage workers hold multiple jobs, Rubio’s subsidy idea has been dismissed by a (liberal) economist as destined to “run into real problems.”
But it’s Rubio’s block grant idea that really gives the game away, signaling how superficial is his concern for America’s downtrodden and how thin is his knowledge of public policy intended to combat poverty. Block-granting the welfare state is an old, old idea and one of the reasons it hasn’t been able to catch on as much as conservatives would like is because, well, it doesn’t work. States don’t use their no-strings-attached funding to innovate, it turns out. Often, they just spend it on someone else (ideally, someone who might vote for them during the next election).
So Rubio’s wonk résumé is about as paltry as Ryan’s. Both men are essentially pushing the same policies that have dominated the GOP since the Reaganite ’80s and both men are mostly able to obscure this by relying on the press’s ingrained desire to find a wonky conservative for “balance.” Both men are also good talkers — better than even most politicians — who know that a largely innumerate political press is easily impressed by a confident-sounding sale featuring charts and graphs (which they usually don’t understand).
Yet, crucially, neither man is patently embarrassing. And, to Brooks, appearances ultimately matter more than anything else. “Voters don’t have to know the details of their nominee’s agenda,” he writes, “but they have to know that the candidate is capable of having an agenda.” Rubio and Ryan seem like they’re capable of speaking at length in coherent and connected sentences. For the Times pundit who rocketed to fame in party by celebrating George W. Bush, that is, evidently, more than enough.