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GOP embraces know-nothing politics

The GOP has found its issue. For the next three months the party plans to keep chanting: “Drill here! Drill now! Drill here! Drill now! Four legs good, two legs bad!”

OK, I added that last part.

The debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I've been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

I don't mean that GOP politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don't question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean is that know-nothingism – the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there's something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise – has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy.

In the case of oil, this takes the form of pretending that more drilling would produce fast relief at the gas pump. In fact, Republicans actually claimed credit for the recent fall in oil prices: “The market is responding to the fact that we are here talking,” said U.S. Rep. John Shadegg.

What about the Department of Energy experts who say that it would take years before offshore drilling would yield any oil at all, and that even then the effect on prices would be “insignificant”? Presumably they're just a bunch of wimps, probably Democrats. And the Democrats, as Rep. Michele Bachmann assures us, “want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs.”

Is this political pitch too dumb to succeed? Don't count on it.

Dumbness got us into war

Remember how the Iraq war was sold. The stuff about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds was just window dressing. The main political argument was, “They attacked us, and we're going to strike back” – and anyone who tried to point out that Saddam and Osama weren't the same person was an effete snob who hated America and probably looked French.

Let's also not forget that for years President Bush was the center of a cult of personality that lionized him as a real-world Forrest Gump, a simple man who prevails through his gut instincts and moral superiority. “Mr. Bush is the triumph of the seemingly average American man,” declared Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2004. “He's not an intellectual. Intellectuals start all the trouble in the world.”

The cult didn't begin to fade until Hurricane Katrina – when the heckuva job done by the man of whom Ms. Noonan said, “if there's a fire on the block, he'll run out and help” revealed the true costs of obliviousness.

The politics of stupidity didn't just appeal to the poorly informed. Members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002. Why? I heard several people express privately the argument that some influential commentators made publicly – that the war was a good idea, not because Iraq posed a real threat, but because beating up someone in the Middle East, never mind who, would show Muslims that we mean business.

Americans ignorant about drilling

All this is in the past. But the state of the energy debate shows that Republicans still think that know-nothing politics works. And they may be right. One recent poll found 69 percent of Americans now favor expanded offshore drilling – and 51 percent of them believe that removing restrictions on drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

The next time someone calls for an end to partisanship, for working together to solve the country's problems, remember this: It won't happen as long as one of America's two great parties believes that when it comes to politics, stupidity is the best policy.

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