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When The Right Was Right

Molly Haynes, left, and Ann Hunter Carraway, with Future Female Leaders, wear GOP themed skirts at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Molly Haynes, left, and Ann Hunter Carraway, with Future Female Leaders, wear GOP themed skirts at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)

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William F. Buckley got lots of mileage out of his joke that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. He wasn’t celebrating mental mediocrity, but rather riffing on what he considered academics’ head-in-the-clouds utopianism.

Buckley indulged the occasional yahoo notion, like opposing civil rights laws, but his amends (admitting he’d been wrong on Jim Crow, then calling it out, while purging conservatism of crazies like the John Birch Society) and his writings left few doubting his intelligence.

How times have changed.

The rotting of the conservative mind is so obvious that even smart right-wingers lament it, as when The New York Times’s Bret Stephens scoffed that a media award memorializing Buckley will go to — Sean Hannity, huckster of screwball conspiracy theories. When the right isn’t dumbing down award standards, it’s busy denying climate change, any benefits from Obamacare and the value of a college education.

The rotting of the conservative mind is so obvious that even smart right-wingers lament it...

Did conservative brains ever hatch a good idea?

Several, in fact, that served the national interest within the last decade. One reason you may not know that is those ideas were orphaned by Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, the Tea Partiers and populists in their base.

A rundown of matters where once the right was right came from, of all people, a prominent progressive. Nobel economist Paul Krugman recently blogged about three good ideas that sprouted among conservatives, only to be dumped as the left adopted them. Let’s review how those ideas applied to three recent crises, and how modern GOP know-nothings fled from their own heritage:

The Great Recession. Barack Obama’s stimulus clearly averted an even worse economic meltdown. Since it passed with virtually no Republican support, you’d think the conservative party would at least embrace easy money as an alternative. After all, that was the preferred strategy of iconic right-wing economist Milton Friedman, who wrote the book, literally, on monetarism, the idea that adjusting the amount of money in the economy, rather than federal spending, is the best anti-recession tonic.

Experience proved Friedman overstated monetarism’s power. Still, his idea grew more vital once the Obama stimulus petered out, leaving the Federal Reserve as the last institutional man standing against the downturn. But when then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke promoted “quantitative easing” to pump up the money base, blowhards like Ryan badgered him that the policy would uncage inflation. That never happened, but Ryan and co. kept up the scare talk. Had Bernanke caved, it would have worsened the crash, all to avert a problem that never materialized.

“Vigorous monetary expansion to fight a deep slump,” Krugman writes, “originally a conservative idea, became anathema on the right even as it was welcomed on the left.”

President Trump speaks during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 1, 2017. From left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R- Wis. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on March 1, 2017. From left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R- Wis. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The Paris climate deal. If ever there was an idea that smeared egg on the face of the knee-jerk left, it was the proposition, originated by the Reagan administration, that market forces could curb pollution. Many liberals scoffed, but in the early 1990s, George H.W. Bush enacted the scheme via “cap-and-trade” to clean up acid rain. The policy allowed companies to purchase rights to pollute under an ever-diminishing ceiling.

In last year’s presidential race, not even Bernie Sanders had an acid rain plank, for the simple reason that the '90s scourge was 2016’s ancient history: Cap-and-trade worked, to the point that Barack Obama incorporated it into his plan at Paris to curb climate change. While taxing carbon emissions is economists’ preferred approach, cap-and-trade was a proven, effective alternative benefitting the national and global interest.

President Trump is the apotheosis of ignorance, but he’s building on a foundation of know-nothingness that predates his election.

Alas, you know what our Republican president thinks about climate change. Bogart and Bergman may always have had Paris, but we won’t while Trump squats in the Oval Office.

Obamacare. Thank God the Senate has thrown out the garbage of its repeal plan for the Affordable Care Act, or ACA. By now it’s cliché to note that, in seeking to repeal the act for seven years, Republicans have disavowed a law that was the brainchild of the conservative Heritage Foundation, preserving private insurance in the drive for universal coverage — and insuring 20 million uninsured in the process.

You see the pattern from these three issues: President Trump is the apotheosis of ignorance, but he’s building on a foundation of know-nothingness that predates his election. Opposing Trumpcare, the GOP climate coma and government indifference toward the economically dispossessed is not just the progressive posture but the conservative one, properly understood.

That his supporters will ignore this is certain, given the president’s one, undeniably insightful idea: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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