There’s so much that’s right about George Will’s takedown of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney that it seems a shame to have to knock him for what he gets wrong. But it must be done since Will perpetuates much of the thinking, or lack thereof, that has led to frauds like Gingrich and Romney becoming major contenders in the first place.
Consider this clever, but not clever enough, line: “God has 10 commandments, Woodrow Wilson had 14 points, Heinz had 57 varieties, but Romney’s economic platform has 59 planks — 56 more than necessary if you have low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens.”
Are “low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens” really the only necessary planks of an economic program? That might have sounded good in 1979, but by 2009 that formula had proved rather inadequate. George W. Bush was quite the free trader, aberrations on steel notwithstanding; he certainly cut taxes; and he wasn’t as much of a regulator as the present incumbent. All of that was nowhere near enough to guarantee the economy’s health and stave off the Great Recession.
Behind the formula lies the idea — or flickering ghost of one — that free trade, low taxes, and low regulation will always lead to growth, and growth will solve the problems that are actually whiplashing the economy right now: unemployment, financial-sector instability, fear of inflation or deflation, unsustainable federal spending, and debt. But this day-glo ’80s supply-side fix gets today’s priorities backwards. In order for tax cuts to stimulate growth, for example, they have to be spent; if Americans would rather pay down debt, that may ultimately lead to a healthier economy, but you won’t have much near-term growth to alleviate unemployment or keep a low-tax, high-spending government solvent.
If Will’s economics are a generation behind the times, his foreign-policy vocabulary comes fresh from the 1930s, referring as he does to “Ron Paul’s isolationism.” You might think that a columnist who just extolled free trade as one of three necessary planks of economic policy would appreciate that trade and isolation are antonyms. But apparently not.
These are instances of reflexive Republican cant, hardly worth commenting on in most circumstances. But Will struck a well-aimed blow against the pretensions of Mitt and Newt; a little re-examination of his own Reagan- and Roosevelt-era nostrums might have been expected.