Jonathan Alter thinks you’re stupid

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior
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Conservatives are used to having their intelligence insulted by the mainstream media. I’m therefore grateful to liberal columnist Jonathan Alter for having the magnanimity to insult the intelligence not only of conservatives, but of the entire electorate.

Alter’s recent column, in which he cheerleads President Obama to give Republicans hell with a “bold” new jobs plan, reveals profound contempt for the average American. It also showcases the intellectual bankruptcy of modern liberal economics, whose adherents have no idea how to revive an economy that has surpassed its capacity for massive Keynesian deficit spending.

This condescension to average voters is something to behold. While insisting that Obama’s plan to create a federal infrastructure bank is “a good idea,” Alter calls it “tone deaf politically” because “many voters don’t really know what infrastructure means.” Is this how America looks from the Upper West Side of Manhattan?

Alter applauds Obama’s desire for more stimulus, but warns him not to actually use the word “stimulus.” That word, he says, has become “stigmatized” (presumably by the colossal failure of the first stimulus). Better to call the new stimulus something else, Alter suggests, like the “Jobs First” agenda.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Changing the brand-name will instantly allay the concerns of voters who fear that we’re borrowing and spending ourselves into oblivion.

Some voters might be insulted by the suggestion that a little creative relabeling will fool them into embracing policies they would otherwise reject. To paraphrase my grandmother, we voters may be dumb but we’re not stupid.

President Obama has revealed himself to be a Keynesian one-trick pony. Since his first stimulus succeeded only in running up our debt, it is politically impossible to repeat that trick.

Now that another massive new dose of deficit spending is no longer possible, the rigid Keynesian mind can only conceive of one alternative: a smaller dose of deficit spending. But to the Keynesian mind, a small dose of deficit spending will have a tiny impact compared to a massive dose of deficit spending. Obama can’t possibly have his heart in the “mini-stimulus” he’s likely to propose; he probably believes it’s doomed to failure because it’s too small.

Alter rattles off proposals that he expects to form the heart of an Obama mini-stimulus: extending the payroll-tax holiday (which would deprive funding to our fiscally unsound Social Security program), increasing public-works spending (which would increase the deficit), reforming the patent process (fine, but very minor), ratifying trade deals (which the Obama Administration has held up so far) and extending unemployment insurance (which, according to some studies, would increase unemployment). “Mini-stimulus” is an apt name for this uninspired grab bag; any stimulative effect it would have on our economy would be decidedly “mini.”

It is difficult to imagine that this program could inspire the fiery “give ‘em hell, Barry” campaign against Republicans that Obama’s base so desperately wants. Obama’s supporters want him to channel Harry Truman in his triumphant whistle-stop train tour across America. If the recent “Made in Canada” bus tour through Middle America is any indication, Obama is no Harry Truman.

It may seem unfair to criticize a jobs plan that the White House hasn’t finished putting together. But that’s the point: Obama should have had a jobs plan long ago. The unemployment rate has been at or over 9 percent for 25 of the last 30 months. Why are we still waiting for Obama’s jobs plan?

Alter offers an excuse that is so weak that it insults our intelligence yet again and highlights Alter’s fervor as an Obama apologist. “Obama’s failure to drive home a jobs agenda is partly his fault (he thought until June that the economy was improving),” writes Alter, “and partly the consequence of the country’s attention being drawn to other stories, such as the Gulf oil spill and the Arab Spring.”

What difference does it make what stories the country’s attention was drawn to? How would that excuse Obama’s failure to even have a plan to address what he has repeatedly acknowledged to be America’s number one problem? I’m surprised that Alter forgot to blame the Casey Anthony trial for the White House’s failure to draft a jobs plan, since the country’s attention was certainly drawn to that story as well. And let’s not forget the Royal Wedding.

Alter’s protective excuse-making for Obama, his forced excitement for an incipient plan that shows no signs of meriting excitement from any part of the political spectrum, highlights the fact that Obama and his supporters are out of ideas.

The rest of us aren’t. As many have argued before, we can increase economic growth and tax revenues through tax reform. Obama and other Democrats also advocate for “revenues” and “tax reform,” but they misuse both terms as poll-tested euphemisms for raising tax rates. Even Obama once acknowledged how harmful it would be to raise taxes in a down economy. Obama should work with Republicans to craft pro-growth tax reform that would lower rates and close loopholes. This would generate revenues not by placing higher tax burdens on workers, job creators and investors, but through the growth and greater compliance that would result from a flatter, fairer, simpler and less burdensome tax code.

Businesses have been afraid to hire, expand and invest under Obama because of uncertainty over taxes and regulation. In addition to tax reform, businesses need relief from the tidal wave of new regulatory burdens that Obama has unleashed on the private sector.

It will be politically difficult for Obama to embrace true tax reform and regulatory relief; both would require him to free himself from the fundamental shibboleths of his base. If he fails to do so, however, and offers us instead the pathetic panoply of undernourished Keynesianism that Alter is laboring to get excited about, we will all suffer the economic consequences. And while Alter may not think we’re very bright, we’re smart enough to recognize a failed presidency when we see one.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.