It turns out that Stephen Moore has a pretty awful sense of humor. His jokes are lame, tasteless, and told with the awkwardness of a guy who really doesn’t get jokes. He’s also prone to say idiotic things about women, race, sports and economics.
This last point should be crucial, since he was up for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board, but because this is Washington, his messy personal life, bad jokes and offensive comments from decades ago did more to kill his nomination than his manifest lack of qualifications or his profound misunderstanding of basic economics.
On Thursday, Moore withdrew his nomination. But this raises the question: How did we ever get this far? Why did conservative insiders think Moore was a serious thinker, or a credible voice on economics? For years, Moore was very much a member in good standing of the conservative supply side economic establishment. He was a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, president of the Club for Growth, and a ubiquitous figure in conservative media, and cable television. More recently, he has been a reliable cheerleader for President Trump, co-authoring an adoring tome titled Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy.
Along the way, Moore has managed to shift or reverse many of his positions on things like deficits and interest rates to align himself with Trump, but unlike another name floated for the Fed, Herman Cain, Moore still managed to retain a good deal of credibility in conservative circles. This unfortunately speaks volumes about quality control on the right, when a malleable opportunist can become more prominent than a principled economist. Moore figured out that it was less important to be right about economics than it was to say the right things and make the right friends. For a while that looked like it would be enough.
When his name was floated for the Federal Reserve, Georgia Senator David Perdue declared that he was “highly qualified for the position on the Fed,” while Nebraska’s Ben Sasse gushed that he was “a sunny optimist and a thoughtful economist.”
There were, of course, people, and not just among Democrats, waving warning flags. Conservative economist Greg Mankiw wrote that “Steve is a perfectly amiable guy, but he does not have the intellectual gravitas for this important job … It is time for Senators to do their job. Mr. Moore should not be confirmed.”
Mankiw’s concerns were echoed by the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Strain, who argued that Moore’s confirmation would undermine public confidence in the Fed’s independence. He noted that Moore “has seemed confused about whether deflation in commodities prices is enough to characterize overall prices as falling. And he has publicly stoked anxiety about ‘hyperinflation’ without solid reason.”
The Hoover Institution’s David Henderson noted that Moore himself had admitted that he “doesn’t have much background in monetary theory or monetary policy.”
Other critics, most notably the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell, pointed out Moore’s bizarre penchant for taking “wrong, intellectually dishonest and politically malleable economic positions.” These included his lack of understanding of the Volcker Rule (he thought it related to commodity prices), his embrace of crackpot theories like returning to the gold standard, and his willingness to flip his positions depending on what policies would give Republicans a partisan advantage. And, Rampell charged, “he lies, and lies, and lies” about his own positions, often doubling down on clear errors of fact.
But these doubts about his qualifications did not seem to dent his support. Just a few weeks ago, 105 economists and conservative activists signed an open letter backing Moore. Even Trump critics seemed willing to go along. Sasse argued that the fact that orthodox economists were criticizing Moore was actually a sign in his favor. “Steve’s nomination has thrown the card-carrying members of the Beltway establishment into a tizzy,” he said, “and that says little about Steve and his belief in American ingenuity, but a lot about central planners’ devotion to groupthink.”
Then folks discovered that Moore had a lot of non-economic baggage.
First came the stories about his messy personal life and his failure to pay child support; followed within days by stories about things he had said or written in the past, including his comment he wasn’t much of a “believer in democracy.” But the turning point seems to have been his tortured attempts at humor, much of it offensive.
Back in 2002, he wrote a column proposing “No more women refs, no women announcers, no women beer vendors, no women anything.”
“How outrageous is this? This year they allowed a woman to ref a men’s NCAA game. Liberals celebrate this breakthrough as a triumph for gender equity,” Moore wrote. “The NCAA has been touting this as an example of how progressive they are. I see it as an obscenity. Is there no area in life where men can take a vacation from women? What’s next? Women invited to bachelor parties? Women in combat? (Oh yeah, they’ve done that already.)”
He proposed one exception to his rule: Women would be allowed to participate, he wrote, “if and only if, they look like Bonnie Bernstein. The fact that Bonnie knows nothing about basketball is entirely irrelevant.”" (He later suggested that Bernstein should wear a halter top when she was reporting.)
In another column, he wrote that “"Colleges are places for rabble-rousing,” where men would “lose their boyhood innocence” and “do stupid things.” “It’s all a time-tested rite of passage into adulthood,” Moore wrote. “And the women seemed to survive just fine.” It only got worse from there. “If they were so oppressed and offended by drunken, lustful frat boys, why is it that on Friday nights they showed up in droves in tight skirts to the keg parties?"
His other attempts at humor had a racial overtone. During a recent appearance on Firing Line, he was asked by host Margaret Hoover about his joke that Trump’s first action was to kick “a black family out of public housing.”
“So, you know, that, that is a joke that I always made about, you know, Obama lives in, you know, the president lives in public housing,” he says. “But I didn’t mean it like a black person did.” The video of him trying to explain exactly what he did mean is the definition of cringe-worthy.
But some of his other ideas were apparently more serious. In 2014, he argued that women earning more than men “could be disruptive to family stability.” He also expressed opposition to child labor laws, calling his position radical. “I’d get rid of a lot of these child labor laws,” he said. “I want people starting to work at 11, 12.” It’s probably been 80 years since anyone made this argument with a straight face.
This time-tested use of oppo research had its intended effect: Key Republican senators began to cool on him. Joni Ernst said: “Look at his writings! I’m not enthused. I’m a woman.” Richard Shelby of Alabama said the allegations against Moore over his taxes and child support payments to his ex-wife “doesn’t help any.” But their criticisms seemed almost exclusively about his personal behavior and his asinine cultural views rather than his economic illiteracy.
Over the weekend he offered a half-hearted apology for some of what he wrote, suggesting on ABC’s “This Week,” that “Frankly, I didn’t even remember writing some of these they were so long ago.” At other times, he’s sheepishly said that he “shouldn’t have said that.” But the problem is that there was so much. Moore tried to brush all of this off as “kind of a sleaze campaign against me” and suggested that he would rather talk about his economic ideas.
The irony, of course, is that if those economic ideas had been taken seriously or examined closely, Moore never would have gotten close to the Fed. In the end, this was a failure of process as well as of the man. Moore will not sit on the Fed and for that we should be grateful. But if the process worked the way it should, the doubts about his qualifications would have knocked him out of the running from the beginning. But they didn’t. So, instead we had to endure the familiar pageant of public disgrace without any evidence that we have learned anything at all from this sorry episode.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine