TYRRELL: Wonks in the White House

Beware of presidents with a policy for every problem

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Do you recall in reading President Truman’s very good memoir, “Years of Trial and Hope: 1946-1952,” his scholarly dissection of the Federal Reserve System and discussion of low inflation’s influence on relatively unstable growth? Actually, I do not, either, and I read the book from cover to cover. Or how about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who led our forces in vanquishing Hitler’s war machine, became the first supreme commander of NATO and eventually president, serving until 1960? Do you remember his erudite discussions of domestic policy during his 1952 campaign? His plan to pare down the national debt with a temporary “surcharge” on the top 1.5 percent of income earners? Then there was, of course, his education policy, which would include highly nutritious lunches for low-income students so the students would not be a burden on our health care system in future years. Well, I do not recall those discussions, either.

Actually, I do not recall Eisenhower talking in such wonky ways about anything, and I know Truman’s memoir is devoid of the stuff. It reads too well. Of course, today, both Truman and Eisenhower would have to be up to the highest wonk standards if they hoped to run against Barack Obama or Newt Gingrich.

For that matter, our greatest president since the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt - I speak of Ronald Reagan - was not a wonk at all. Nor were John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon, and certainly not Lyndon B. Johnson. Jimmy Carter made a stab at being a wonk, but as with everything else, he failed. The real wonks came with the maturing of the 1960s generation, most notably Bill Clinton and Mr. Gingrich, but there also were those curiosities, California’s Jerry Brown and the ghost of the 1972 Democratic convention, Gary Hart. They are a little long in the tooth to be legitimate wonks of the 1960s generation, but they tried - as for a certitude Mr. Brown was weird enough.

The true policy wonk is a juggler of facts and trends and “ideas” who came out of the 1960s to wow all those whom he assaulted with his knowledge of government, society, the movies, rock ‘n’ roll, and the cost of a gallon of milk. The wonks have ideas for income distribution, the value of the dollar, crime in the inner city, health care, the environment - whatever is in the headline at the moment. They dream up policies for things whose policies are unclear. The problem of global warming? Cap and trade. Health care? Well, tax income at a certain percentage and apply the revenue to agreed-upon disbursements for earmarked segments of the population but with mandates that … oh, forget about it. The health care monstrosity should have earned every wonk a price on his head. With the 1960s generation came government policies for every aspect of the human condition, and there has not been a good president elected since 1988. Barack Obama is the reductio ad absurdum of every policy wonk ever heard of.

Now Mr. Clinton steps forward with a new book, “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.” The presumption he attaches to the word “smart” is typical of him and his fellow wonks. Would Truman or Eisenhower have the temerity to claim any of their policies as being smart? They would not brag of their policies’ stupidities, but they would leave it to someone else to appraise their policies’ merits - and in the 1940s and 1950s “smart” was a word associated more frequently with couture or tailoring than with policy. Both Harry and Ike were far better presidents than Bill, the guy who got himself impeached and trapped by a Republican majority in both houses, leaving him muttering, “The era of big government is over.”

Now, with this insufferable book of wonkish chatter, he has come forward and boasted of all that he achieved during his big-government-is-over days and proclaimed a future that will be dominated by the biggest government of all. It brings to mind another problem with wonks. Their wonkery is not rooted in principle or ethics. It is only rooted in their egos, which are fickle.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is “After the Hangover: The Conservatives’ Road to Recovery” (Thomas Nelson, 2010).

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