OPED: GOP turns blind eye to bad policy

Jonathan Bernstein
Tribune News Service

The most striking thing about how President Donald Trump chose his new national security adviser, John Bolton, and new director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, isn't about either of them personally, although neither is well suited to the honest-broker role that their position calls for. Nor is it that Trump seems to have hired both of them because he liked watching them on television. That's a deeply flawed reason to hire anyone, to be sure, but we're accustomed to how Trump hires people based on superficial criteria.

What is striking is that both are essentially within the mainstream of the Republican Party on policy approaches that ended in disaster during the last Republican presidency. Bolton was part of the George W. Bush administration as it prepared for and fought the Iraq War; Kudlow hasn't been in government for years, but he was a cheerleader for Bush's policies as the economy plunged into a terrible recession. Neither of them was discredited as a result, because Republicans have collectively decided that their policies in 2001-2008 were correct, regardless of outcome.

This is ... unusual. Democrats after the Jimmy Carter years pretty much exiled everyone in that White House from further influence within the party; Bill Clinton wouldn't even hire Carter people who had survived with excellent reputations. Democrats after 1968 went through a bitter fight over foreign policy, with most of those who supported the Vietnam War inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations losing their place in the party and the entire foreign-policy establishment overturned. And Eisenhower Republicans rejected Hoover economic approaches. In other words, parties usually deal with major policy failures by ridding themselves of those held responsible.

Electorates have very short memories, and they pay way more attention to their task of throwing out the current rascals than checking on who the new rascals will be. Parties don't want to repeat their mistakes, presumably for straightforward good-governance reasons and in accord with the electoral incentive to try to make voters happy.

The truth is many Republicans, including governing professionals such as Bolton, just don't see the Iraq War as a policy disaster. I don't think that's quite true on economic policy, but in that area, they've managed to convince themselves that the party out of office was responsible.

In some ways, the traditional party reaction to policy failure can be a mistake, with parties freezing out talented people who just happened to be there when things went wrong. The best approach is almost certainly a middle ground, in which the party takes a good, hard look at how things went awry and who should be discredited. But there's not much evidence that's happened for Republicans. It's just one of the many things suggesting normal party incentives aren't working properly for the party. And that leaves them much less prepared to govern than they should be ... Trump or no Trump.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.