Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Latest News from Planet Douthat

When it comes to politics and political commentary the "fools or frauds" question often arises. When somebody makes an assertion that reflects badly on their intelligence, you have to wonder are they truly that foolish or are they knowingly advancing a fraudulent argument. Some columnists appear to believe that "fool or fraud" is a false dichotomy, far too constraining - you don't have to be one or the other when you can be both? And then, alas, you at times see somebody who is attempting a fraud so clumsily that he reveals himself to be a fool.

For some reason my thoughts now shift to Ross Douthat. Douthat opens by assuming that last week's debate was between "the flaws in contemporary conservatism" and "the weaknesses in Obama-era liberalism", and suggests that flawed contemporary conservatism carried the day. I am wondering at this point if Douthat watched the same debate I saw, but alas, he offers no analysis to support his conclusion. We then move into fantasy land:
Four years ago, the Obama presidency was hailed as the beginning of an extended liberal renaissance – a new New Deal, a resurrected Camelot, a return to the glory days of Lyndon Johnson before Vietnam wrecked his presidency. Health care reform was the highest priority, but it was only supposed to be the beginning.
The glory days of Lyndon Johnson.... wasn't that the Obama team's tag line going into the election? Seriously, other than a handful of first time voters already exhausted by eight years of Bush ineptitude, few of whom would get the "Johnson/Vietnam" reference, who does Douthat imagine he is describing?

The most common reaction I was hearing from Democrats was, "I hope the Democrats in Congress don't **** this up." A close second place went to, "I wonder how the Democrats in Congress are going to **** this up?" Perhaps Douthat is confused and believes that Democrats live in opposite land, and if he and his circle of confederates were crying about how Obama was going to ruin the world it could only mean that Democrats believed the opposite. It appears that he needs a bit more grounding in what the Bush Administration deemed "the reality based community."

He goes from there to worse:
With the Democrats enjoying huge congressional majorities, everything seemed to be on the table: Immigration reform, a program to combat climate change, card-check legislation, a wave of trust-busting in the banking sector – and at the least, the very least, a return to Clinton-era tax rates.
Immigration reform. You know, that ridiculous "liberal" concept that George W. Bush wanted to make part of his first term agenda, and that "liberals" like John "DREAM Act" McCain used to champion.

A program to combat climate change. You know, like the cap and trade approach that John McCain guy used to advance, in the past also endorsed by that other ridiculous, naive liberal, Newt Gingrich.

Advocacy for "a wave of trust-busting in the banking sector"? Earth to Planet Douthat? Where did he get the idea that President Obama supported whatever he imagines "trust-busting in the banking sector" to mean? Perhaps Douthat has President Obama confused with Teddy Roosevelt? In the real world, Obama was praising Jamie Dimon while letting Larry Summers and Tim Geithner spearhead financial industry reforms.

A "return to Clinton-era tax rates"? Republicans continue to feign concern about deficit spending and the need for lower deficits and balanced budgets, so it would not be unreasonable for Obama to allow the "Bush-era tax cuts" to expire. I am sure Douthat has erased the facts from his memory, but the cuts passed through reconciliation and were scheduled to expire after ten years. But I digress. No member of the Democratic Party advocated "", and in fact taxes were cut. There is talk about "a return to Clinton-era tax rates" for the wealthiest wage earners, but that's entirely different from what Douthat is pretending to have been Democratic Party policy.

Card check legislation? Well, obviously the modern Republican Party isn't going to help labor unions, so at least he is correct in terms of associating it with the Democratic Party, but it was not the priority Douthat would have us believe. Why pull it out of mothballs? Because it remains a Republican talking point.

In other words, Douthat complains that the Democrats wanted to pass a "weak" form of "liberalism" which, for the most part, had previously been at the core of campaign rhetoric and policy proposals of the prior President and Obama's 2008 election opponent. Well, yes, adopting Republican policies can reasonably be described as a weak form of liberalism, but that's obviously not what Douthat meant.

And... whoah... we're only too paragraphs into Douthat's foolishness.

Douthat pontificates,
Sometimes Obama-era liberalism has disappointed because it has failed outright. The defeat of cap-and-trade legislation and the stillborn push for immigration reform exposed the deep fissures within the Democratic party, and particularly the divide between the enlightened do-goodism of the party’s upper middle class supporters and the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents.
It should be unnecessary to say this, but McCain/Gingrich style "cap and trade" measures, and McCain/Bush-style immigration reform aren't the best examples of "Obama-era liberalism" or its failure. Immigration reform failed because of right-wing demagoguery, a strategy of xenophobia that remains remarkably effective at scaring and dividing people. John McCain could have demonstrated some backbone and picked up at least one of his old causes, rallying the tiny number of Republican votes it would have taken to see his dreams (no pun intended) become reality. But no, politics were more important, and as Mitch McConnell said, their number one job was to beat Obama in 2012.

How about that little sneer at the Democratic Party's elites who are out of touch with "the economic interests of its remaining blue-collar constituents"? Because, you know, 95% of Democrats are rich, urb9o0anites, doing something other than working in the financial industry but, you know, otherwise that rich and out of touch. Were Douthat an honest man, he would admit that he's using a euphemism here for "working class white males who have not attended college", but... he's not. Even if we assume that there remains no lingering effect of the Republican Southern Strategy, which we should not, the Republican Party has engaged in shameless demagoguery on a wide variety of issues to keep that group of voters largely in its corner. And yes, it reached the point where John McCain had to scamper away from his own long-held beliefs in support of policies that Douthat purports to be "Obama-era liberalism".

Douthat next launches into the standard Republican double message on Obama's first year in office - having just told us how the President should have been able to resolve pretty much every major, unresolved issue facing the country, we get "but he simultaneously should also have tried to do less".
Then came the White House’s failure to sell the public on its health care bill, which exacerbated the stimulus’s underperformance – by leading to months of wrangling when Washington should have been reckoning with the economy instead – and then cost the Democrats dearly at the polls in 2010.
You see, there was no issue with Republican obstructionism and demagoguery, the whole "death panels" thing never happened, Republicans didn't (and don't) criticize the President for supposedly cutting Social Security (to give money to undeserving people who haven't "paid for" Medicare), and the like. No, all the President had to do was give speech and the nation would have magically understood the entire bill. You have to ask, why didn't he think of that. Oh yeah, because he doesn't have the good fortune of living on Planet Douthat.
This failure of salesmanship doesn’t in and of itself discredit the bill’s provisions.
That's an interesting admission, Ross. Funny how you didn't have enough space in your blog post (which does not have any limitations on its length) to better explain that one.
But at the very least it demonstrates that the redistributive policies liberals favor will only be accepted if they’re founded on a secure base of economic growth – growth that Obama’s policies, unlike F.D.R.’s or L.B.J.’s, have conspicuously failed to produce.
And just like that, we're beamed back up to Planet Douthat. The planet where seniors won't take a penny of Social Security or Medicare unless they're sure they paid for everything they receive (and more!) over their working lives. The planet in which Medicare Part D, a gargantuan, unfunded expansion of Medicare wasn't spearheaded by a Republican President, passed by a Republican Congress, and eagerly accepted by a panoply of senior citizens who vote Republican. With Paul "Mr. Fiscal Responsibility" Ryan himself voting for the expansion. Because... redistribution. Ew.

Not being big on internal consistency, Douthat explains the biggest fault of "Obama-era liberalism" - it's designed to advance the ends of powerful interest and industry groups, instead of the people.
More broadly, all of Obama’s signature accomplishments have tended to have the same weakness in common: They have been weighed down by interest-group payoffs and compromised by concessions to powerful insiders, from big pharma (which stands to profit handsomely from the health care bill) to the biggest banks (which were mostly protected by the Dodd-Frank financial reform).
One wonders how Douthat defines "conservatism", or if he has ever heard either the expression, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" or "business as usual". He can't possibly be that clueless about how Washington works.

A small dose of reality: The legislation the President passed could have been made significantly better had a handful of responsible Republicans signed on. The President would have been able to avoid making unseemly deals with the likes of Mary Landrieu and Ben Nelson, the nation would have been better served, the special interests might have been pushed back at least a few inches. But no, Mitch McConnnell was focused on creating a context for Obama's defeat, and it makes for much better demagoguery to whine about "The Louisiana Purchase" than to admit that one responsible Republican could have voted in favor of the bill and obviated the need for that deal.
It may have been an empty rhetorical gesture, but the fact that Romney could actually out-populist the president on “too big to fail” during the last debate speaks to the Obama-era tendency for liberalism to blur into a kind of corporatism, in which big government intertwines with big business rather than restraining it.
The President was, of course, handicapped by the facts. Romney can do his usual, embracing both sides of the issue: "I love Dodd-Frank, except for the parts that I hate and will repeal, and no I'm not going to tell you what parts I'm taking about," and pretend that he would do more than the President to take on the financial industry. May have been an empty rhetorical gesture? Once again, "Earth to Planet Douthat...." The financial sector is openly seething about what they see as an attack by the President. Bailing them out so that they could pay their bonuses with taxpayer dollars and borrow for next to nothing, and get right back to business as usual? You can only imagine their horror. You can rest assured that Romney is presenting a very different message behind closed doors. Those are, after all, his people.

And hm... what word is it that anti-Obama demagogues like to use to describe Obama, and what does it have to do with "big government intertwine[d] with big business"? (Something that Douthat has apparently never noticed before. Seriously?) Perhaps he's been hanging out with Jonah Goldberg. Yeah, Obama's that brand of socialist-communist-fascist that is always ignoring the needs of the people in favor of serving powerful industries.

How can you follow up on such a wonderful analysis? How about by... lying?
But what we don’t see in this campaign cycle is much soul-searching from Democrats about the ways in which their agenda hasn’t worked out as planned.

Instead, in a country facing a continued unemployment crisis and a looming deficit crunch, liberals have rallied behind a White House whose only real jobs program is “stay the course” and whose plan to deal with long-term deficits relies on the woefully insufficient promise to tax the 1 percent.
You know, job bill? Blocked by Republicans? Because they want Obama to lose? Apparently no similar effort was made on Planet Douthat? You can criticize it on substance - Matt Taibbi thinks it's a handout to Wall Street, Richard Epstein thinks it would create a socialist nightmare - but you cannot pretend it does not exist. What does Mitt Romney promise to do, again? Oh, that's right... "create" the exact number of jobs that are projected to be created if we vote a turnip into the White House.
It’s not that Romney offered some detailed, brilliantly persuasive alternative. He didn’t, and couldn’t, because his party has at best a sketch of a policy agenda rather than a blueprint.
Actually, as Douthat knows, if Romney's party thought Romney believed half of what he said in the debate they would pull the plug on his campaign. The same interests that Douthat whines are too influential in the Obama Administration consider Romney to be bought and paid for.
But Romney isn’t running for re-election, and this was a case where merely seeming forward-looking, energetic and reassuring was enough to remind Americans of all the ways that the Obama era has disappointed them – and in so doing, sent shivers down liberalism’s glass jaw.
Wow. For mixed metaphors of that caliber I usually have to read Thomas Friedman.

Frankly, if a Republican presidential nominee can win an election by serving up a steaming dose of Rafalca leavings, but doing so in a "forward-looking, energetic and reassuring" manner, we have bigger problems than trying to figure out how to make glass jaws stop shivering. Douthat may come to realize that, should he ever move back to Planet Earth.

Should Douthat venture beyond his peer group and into the world at large, he will find that Democrats are very concerned about what might happen in a second Obama term. That they're aware of the institution impediments politicians like McConnell are happy to utilize to damage the President, even when he knows he's also harming the country, because power is more important than policy. But I suspect I"m now getting into stuff that's beyond Douthat's ability to grasp, harder and nowhere near as much fun to write as a blog post that echoe's Republican talking points, and not at all likely to fill Douthat's pockets through speaker fees and book contracts.

Update: Ethan Gach is far more charitable to Douthat than I. Responding to Douthat's claim that "liberals" have "rallied" behind the President and his lukewarm second term agenda, Gach comments, "What makes Douthat’s chiding so unbearable isn’t that it’s untrue: it’s that it completely misses the point."

When Douthat complains, "we don’t see in this campaign cycle is much soul-searching from Democrats about it seems that he missed his own political party's inability to "soul search" following various election losses. But more than that, he's presenting a hollow man argument. In his bifurcation of society, Douthat whines about "liberals" as if there's a single, unified "liberal" mindset, and that "liberals" are all cheering for the President. He can only believe that if... he never ventures outside and limits his media exposure to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It would be more true to accuse conservatives of mindlessly cheering for Mitt Romney despite his offering what Douthat charitably describes as "at best a sketch of a policy agenda rather than a blueprint". Seriously - Douthat defends that on the ground that Romney is not the incumbent, but it's much easier to run on a fantasy when your campaign is not firmly grounded in facts on the ground.

Gach believes that Douthat is expressing a clever form of contrarianism, that "The very thing that liberals love to accuse Romney of being, well, it’s actually true of their guy". Except the concern about Romney is not that "his agenda going forward is insubstantive" - the concern about Romney is that he has an agenda that he refuses to disclose, but that he may nonetheless be elected.

Gach continues his charity work,
I can understand why Douthat doesn’t want to look at the entire context in which the people, philosophies, and political parties he’s discussing are operating. That would be difficult, complex, and inconclusive. It certainly would not lend itself to the kind of “actually THIS is what’s going on” blogging that professional pundits are expected and encouraged to turn out.
If you say, though, that Douthat "doesn’t want to look at the entire context" you have the choice of stating that his blindness is not willful (fool) or that he's deliberately omitting the context in order to present an argument he knows to be deeply flawed if not false (fraud). Yes, if you can see through the charade this approach "makes what he says kind of silly", but his pontifications weren't intended for somebody like Gach who can see through the charade.

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