The (Not So) Great Debate

Paul Greenberg

6/17/2011 3:05:00 PM - Paul Greenberg
The most revealing comment made during the not very revealing "debate" among Republican presidential candidates came from the moderator, CNN's John King, who asked the line-up of GOP hopefuls to explain what their plan for the economy was.

The question was revealing, however unintentionally, because of its underlying assumption: that the economy needs a presidentially provided plan if it's ever going to fully revive.

You might have thought the idea of a planned economy went out with the fall of communism, or at least of the late unlamented Soviet Union. That was a couple of decades ago, but even though empires collapse, the assumptions on which they were based persist. Now the need for a planned economy turns up as the unspoken premise of, of all things, an American presidential debate. Bad ideas don't die; they just mutate and emerge in a different era and environment, often enough incognito, their ideological origins unrecognized.

It's an old joke -- and an all too true one: Know how to make God laugh?

Answer: Make plans.

How strange: What may have been the greatest economic expansion in this country's history, the explosion of American economic growth during the latter part of the 19th century, took place without an over-all government plan. How about that?

Instead, all that growth spurt took place through a wild mix of public and private investment, of entrepreneurial innovation and good old-fashioned, all-American corruption. (It wasn't always easy to tell the difference.)

Result: The economy grew dramatically through a succession of booms and busts, fits and starts, panics and peaks without anybody in the federal government planning it. You'd think it was a free country.

By the end of that period, a nation ravaged by a terrible civil war that left a good third of it in ruins had emerged into the 20th century as an industrial, agricultural and even something of a financial giant. And nobody had planned it that way. Nobody could have planned it that way.

The growth of the American economy in those years was so great, so dynamic and dramatic, that the country attracted still more immigrants by the millions from still more parts of the world. All flocked to the Land of Opportunity. How could that possibly have happened without a comprehensive government plan? And yet it did.

No, it wasn't easy. And it certainly wasn't smooth. Or guaranteed. Call it Creative Destruction, to borrow a description of capitalism from an economist named Schumpeter. If you're looking for a prime example of Creative Destruction, late 19th-century America would be it. If monopolies weren't being created, they were being outlawed. If strikes weren't being called, they were being broken. And through it all, the economy was growing like a teenager, and with about as much impulse control.

How restart today's stalled economy? It might help to look back at the spirit of those 1ate 19th- and early 20th-century Americans, new and old, native and immigrant, who were making it all happen. They had something better than a planned economy to rely on: a faith in freedom and in themselves. No matter what obstacles they might encounter or challenges they would have to meet. Or however painful the setbacks. Through it all, they didn't just talk about the spirit of freedom; they lived it. Through all the economy's ups and downs and animal spirits. And the country flourished. Not in any planned way but in all ways, chaotic as that may sound to undersecretaries of economic development at the UN or economic planners at think tanks.

To appreciate, and apprehend, the best and most revealing question/comment of Monday night's presidential debate, and recognize the unexamined assumption behind it, requires that rarest of faculties in a presidential election campaign:

A little historical perspective.

Oh, yes, the candidates. Who won and who lost this presidential debate/ lovefest/mishmash the other night? It scarcely matters this early in the presidential sweepstakes, which keep starting sooner and sooner.

Unfortunately.

I'd give the decision to Mitt Romney on points, mainly because his party could use a Wendell Willkie instead of a Barry Goldwater at this uncertain juncture in the political wars. It could use somebody who's not just a businessman but a politician, a consensus-builder rather than an ideologue.

Somebody who may be conservative but ain't mad about it. His party needs a Dwight D. Eisenhower rather than a Robert A. Taft. (Romney-Petraeus in '12, anyone?)

But it's much too early to choose favorites in this race. Some possible nominees, like Jon Hunstman of Utah and now fresh from the American embassy in Beijing, haven't even got to the festivities yet. There were some hopefuls up there on CNN's stage who shone even at this early date. Michele Bachmann, for bright example. She was articulate, on point, and -- please don't noise it about, but she may be an ... intellectual. Shocking. If that doesn't kill her chances in the GOP's presidential primaries, nothing will.

The congresswoman may be guilty of intellectuality, the unforgivable sin of American politics. (See the political fate of Stevenson, Adlai.) Because her answers seemed based on ideas, mainly those of the classical liberal economists. And ideas have consequences. She's going to be somebody to watch in national politics, presidential nominee or not.

Others have seen her potential, too, or else the fashionable crowd wouldn't be giving her the Sarah Palin treatment, that is, trying to reduce her to a caricature. Odds are Tina Fey is already working up a Michele Bachmann act for "Saturday Night Live," if she hasn't already got it down pat.

Herman Cain was another winner Monday night. Turns out he can do more than sound like a preacher at a revival; he can talk sense as well as business sense.

As for the also-rans, Tim Pawlenty may have a world of facts and figures at his command, but he could bore a fence post to death with them. Like most speakers without an ounce of charisma, when he does decide to get cute, he gets too cute. As when he coined the term Obamneycare to take a dig at Mitt Romney, the just emerging front-runner in this just starting race for the Republican presidential nomination. That contrived label may have had the shortest shelf life of any in American politics. Even its originator declined to take credit for it when he found himself standing next to Mr. Romney in this chorus line. Instead, he tried to blame that awkward tag, like everything else wrong with the country, on Barack Obama.

Rick Santorum? He needs to make peace with the idea that his time has come -- and gone. Newt Gingrich, alas, remains Newt Gingrich; he should have resigned from his campaign when his staff did. He's old 1990s hat. As for good old Ron Paul, isolationist in foreign affairs and a money crank at home (he's still obsessed with the evils of the country's having a central bank), well, if he ever tires of presidential politics, he would make a great addition to any museum of living history, bless his antique heart and mind.

Here's the scariest prospect of all: There's a lot more of this kind of thing still to come. The not so great race for the GOP's presidential nomination may have only begun to bore.