Monday, January 25, 2010

When The Nation Faces Big Problems....


Think small. I recognize that political conservatism often involves resistance to change, and that it's perfectly human to fear change. But Douthat approaches the topic of special interests and factions as if it's something new. And to the extent that a desire to bring about big solutions to big problems can be seen as a disease, his cure is far worse.
You can make big changes to small programs, and small changes to big ones. But comprehensive solutions tend to produce comprehensive resistance. And the more sweeping the stakes, the greater the chance of political disaster — whether your name is Clinton or Gingrich, Bush or Obama — when your bill goes down to defeat.
So the lesson Douthat derives from history is that when things get hard, you should quit? When the going gets tough, Douthat's outta here?

Douthat appears to embrace the theory that before the New Deal and the Civil Rights Era, the country was a big love-in. Easy solutions to big problems. Lots of happiness, hugs, and happy little bunny rabbits. Never mind that the country was born in revolution, with the founders of our nation being anything but inclined to think small. Never mind that awkward little civil war.
Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”
And nothing like that has happened in other areas of government favored by his party, such as the military, or in energy and farm subsidies. Nothing like that has happened in religious organizations like the Catholic Church, or in private industry - light and nimble, they are. Not when you can use your Republican tunnel vision to hone in on the New Deal and Civil Rights as bugbears that tie our nation in knots. I mean, who even wants civil rights, or a decent retirement.

As usual, it's not clear whether Douthat's being disingenuous or clueless. He focuses on the ugly process by which the health care bill was (almost) created, and then asserts, falsely, that the proposed legislation represents a "sweeping reform". The bill preserves the status quo, compelling those presently uninsured to buy their health insurance from existing private insurance companies. While Douthat imagines, in the place of reform, a series of meaningless baby steps, it's actually impossible to engage in meaningful reform without creating a complex bill.

Further, even though he focuses on process, he emphasizes the fears and concerns of various demographic groups without asking how those fears arose. That is, he has not one word to offer about the disinformation spread by his party and its allies that was deliberately calculated to create fear and opposition to reform. If he understands the policy, he does his readers a disservice by offering a (hopefully premature) post-mortem that fails to address the gulf between policy and perception. It goes without saying that he fails to address the role of the media, and notably of pundits and commentators like himself, to educate the public about the facts. (But it's easier, and more fun, to focus on the personalities and conflicts, right?) No, you can't fight human nature, but you don't have to exploit its darkest aspects in order to achieve political goals you can't achieve honestly.

The funny thing? Douthat relies very heavily on Jonathan Rauch in support of his (party memo) argument that the Dems should abandon health reform. And he knows what Rauch has to say about this specific bill:
Since my column today draws on Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End” to critique the Democrats’ attempt at a comprehensive health care bill, it’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving.
Of course it's only fair to note that Rauch supports the bill. In fact would be a dishonest distortion to rely exclusively on Rauch in an attack on healthcare reform without noting how Rauch applies his own ideas to the subject matter of the column. So what are we to make of the fact that Douthat only makes the disclosure on his blog, not in his column?

Douthat sees Ronald Reagan as having "tried and failed to purge Washington of wasteful spending" - to me, that highlights how young Douthat is. He remembers Reagan, the legend, not Reagan, the President who promised to balance the budget then ran up record deficits. But does Douthat deny that it's a fight worth fighting? Does Douthat truly want a world in which we roll back Civil Rights Era legislation in order to reduce the size of government? Does he truly want to eliminate Social Security and Medicare? (He didn't mention the fight for women's suffrage....)

Thinking small is no magic cure to passing legislation. Nobody actually believes that meaningful healthcare reform can be passed incrementally. The various aspects of reform are too interconnected to pass piecemeal. (And we're back to the same question - does Douthat truly not know this?) Moreover, let's say that it were, when you go from one bill to, lets say ten small bills, opponents of healthcare reform simply put away the elephant guns and pull out the flyswatter.

Small thinkers like Douthat help ensure that our nation won't act on big issues until we reach a point of crisis. It's not enough that the system is obviously unsustainable. The sky must literally be falling. With a more responsible press and a more responsible opposition party, we could be enacting meaningful solutions to some big problems, right now. With enough Republicans on board, the least responsible Dems could be cut out of the process. Win-win, right? Sadly, Douthat seems intent upon representing the worst of punditry and the worst of his party. Does he know the meaning of the word "courage"?

Keep on thinking small.

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