So Jeb Bush is finally going after Donald Trump. Over the past couple of weeks the man who was supposed to be the front-runner has made a series of attacks on the man who is. Strange to say, however, Bush hasn’t focused on what’s truly vicious and absurd — viciously absurd? — about Trump’s platform, his implicit racism and his insistence that he would somehow round up 11 million immigrants in the country illegally and remove them from our soil.
Instead, Bush has chosen to attack Trump as a false conservative, a proposition that is supposedly demonstrated by his deviations from current Republican economic orthodoxy: his willingness to raise taxes on the rich, his positive words about universal health care. And that tells you a lot about the dire state of the GOP. For the issues the Bush campaign is using to attack its unexpected nemesis are precisely the issues on which Trump happens to be right, and the Republican establishment has been proved utterly wrong.
To see what I mean, consider what was at stake in the last presidential election, and how things turned out after Mitt Romney lost.
During the campaign, Romney accused President Barack Obama of favoring redistribution of income from the rich to the poor, and the truth is that Obama’s re-election did mean a significant move in that direction. Taxes on the top 1 percent went up substantially in 2013, both because some of the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire and because new taxes associated with Obamacare kicked in. And Obamacare itself, which provides a lot of aid to lower-income families, went into full effect at the beginning of 2014.
Conservatives were very clear about what would happen as a result. Raising taxes on “job creators,” they insisted, would destroy incentives. And they were absolutely certain that the Affordable Care Act would be a “job killer.”
So what actually happened? As of last month, the U.S. unemployment rate, which was 7.8 percent when Obama took office, had fallen to 5.1 percent. For the record, Romney promised during the campaign that he would get unemployment down to 6 percent by the end of 2016. Also for the record, the current unemployment rate is lower than it ever got under Ronald Reagan. And the main reason unemployment has fallen so much is job growth in the private sector, which has added more than 7 million workers since the end of 2012.
I’m not saying that everything is great in the U.S. economy, because it isn’t. There’s good reason to believe that we’re still a substantial distance from full employment, and while the number of jobs has grown a lot, wages haven’t. But the economy has nonetheless done far better than should have been possible if conservative orthodoxy had any truth to it. And now Trump is being accused of heresy for not accepting that failed orthodoxy?
So am I saying that Trump is better and more serious than he’s given credit for being? Not at all — he is exactly the ignorant blowhard he seems to be. It’s when it comes to his rivals that appearances can be deceiving. Some of them may come across as reasonable and thoughtful, but in reality they are anything but.
Bush, in particular, may pose as a reasonable, thoughtful type — credulous reporters even describe him as a policy wonk — but his actual economic platform, which relies on the magic of tax cuts to deliver a doubling of America’s growth rate, is pure supply-side voodoo.
And here’s what’s interesting: All indications are that Bush’s attacks on Trump are falling flat, because the Republican base doesn’t actually share the Republican establishment’s economic delusions.
The thing is, we didn’t really know that until Trump came along. The influence of big-money donors meant that nobody could make a serious play for the GOP nomination without pledging allegiance to supply-side doctrine, and this allowed the establishment to imagine that ordinary voters shared its anti-populist creed. Indeed, Bush’s hapless attempt at a takedown suggests that his political team still doesn’t get it, and thinks that pointing out The Donald’s heresies will be enough to doom his campaign.
But Trump, who is self-financing, didn’t need to genuflect to the big money, and it turns out that the base doesn’t mind his heresies. This is a real revelation, which may have a lasting impact on our politics.
Again, I’m not making a case for Trump. There are lots of other politicians out there who also refuse to buy into right-wing economic nonsense, but who do so without proposing to scour the countryside in search of immigrants to deport, or to rip up our international economic agreements and start a trade war. The point, however, is that none of these reasonable politicians is seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed Page and continues as professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University.