On Ross Douthat, “Glass Jaw” Analogies, and Always Trying to Find a New Angle
Ross Douthat seeks to diagnose what’s ailing the left and more specifically, the President. Naturally, it’s “liberalism’s glass jaw,”
“There is no world in which all of these hopes could have been perfectly realized. But the ways in which they’ve been disappointed have delivered some hard lessons. It isn’t just that Obama failed to live up to the (frankly impossible) standard set by his 2008 campaign and the media adoration that accompanied it. It’s that the nature of his failures speak to the limits of the liberal project, and the tensions and contradictions within the liberal coalition.
Again, every administration has its share of disappointments, and every ideology has to make concessions to political reality. 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. When Obama insiders wax optimistic about what a second term might bring, they mostly talk about pursuing legislation on climate change and immigration yet again, without explaining why things will turn out differently this time around.”
What makes Douthat’s chiding so unbearable isn’t that it’s untrue: it’s that it completely misses the point.
It’s important to distinguish the real pundits from regular bloggers, writers, and commentators. A real pundit gets paid for his or her punditry. Anyone else talking politics, or policy, is just giving their opinion. Where as I am writing this post not for money but out of disgust for the kind of off-topic analysis that constantly distracts, Douthat is writing first and foremost for a pay check. What that means is nothing more nefarious than that he has added pressure to come up with “new” insights and “original” angles.
In this case that has led him to put out the slightly controversial argument (at least for a majority of diehard readers at the Times) that Obama is not losing the race because of poor optics or forces outside of his control like the national economy, but because his agenda going forward is insubstantive.
The very thing that liberals love to accuse Romney of being, well, it’s actually true of their guy. At least according to a well written and compelling post by Douthat. It’s a classic reversal. Use an argument people commonly employ to claim X, and show that really, it actually proves Y. He does it beautifully. Unfortunately though it has almost nothing to do with reality–something that we all disagree about, but which is not at all a subjective thing.
Douthat goes through Obama’s record, from the stimulus to health care reform to failed environmental intiatives, and tries to show that each of these instances demonstrates not a failure of the system, but a failure of post-2008 liberalism.
But he’s not actually attacking the policies being advocated by the liberalism he’s identified, but rather its ability to sign them into law.
He notes that liberal technocrats got the stimulus wrong. But it was really liberal politicians and their staffs that got it wrong. Krugman et al claimed from the beginning that Democrats in power weren’t owning up tot he size of the fiscal hole they were trying to fill or how much money would actually be required to fill it, because of the politics of the situation. Republicans were itching for a fight, and the public did not elect Obama to spend trillions of dollars during the first legislative term, so the Democrats went small. And so the fiscal effects were small.
This was not a revelation for Keynsians. It is what the ones detached from either party predicted.
On Cap’n Trade and other green initiatives, yes, one could argue that Democrats turned on one another, thus preventing greener policies from going into effect. But had Republicans not systematically attempted to block all policies aimed at environmental sustainability, the Democrats from coal, oil, and gas states that abandoned their party’s liberalist agenda would not have mattered.
And like Obama’s health care policies, Cap’n Trade was a market oriented approach created to get enough Republican support for bipartisan passage. It might be a failure of modern liberalism’s movement capabilities that it hasn’t been able to convince the public to pay more for energy in order to combat global warming and provide our children and grandchildren with a more sustainable future, but it is not a failure in the way Douthat is making it out to be.
Not once does Douthat mention modern conservatism’s role in any of the congressional battles he skims over. Rather, the outcomes are looked at as if modern liberalism were singularly responsible for them. Instead, he talks about the effects of ACA, arguing that ” it demonstrates that the redistributive policies liberals favor will be accepted only 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.”
ACA is not even in full effect yet. And as Douthat has gone on to note, most of the policies advocated for under the liberalism of Obama and his Congressional cohorts have not been put into law. What we did occur was a stimulus that was too small and the failure of Republicans to compromise so a jobs plan and budget that incorporated liberal and conservative priorities in proportion to each philosophy’s representation in government could be put into effect. And all of those things are predicated on years of Republican agenda setting prior to the financial collapse. No matter how you spin it, the last four years cannot be analyzed as an experiment in modern liberalism.
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.
But it also makes what he says kind of silly. We need to care about how different polices, politicians, and political philosophies are perceived because people like Douthat and others keep telling us we do, as well as the fact that for many uneducated voters, all they will ever know is what they perceive.
However, it would be much more reassuring if we could spend a bit more time caring about what actually matters in reality, which are the problems facing the country (as well as local populations/the world), and how they can be solved. Spending more time caring about those two things would require a lot more posts of the form, “here’s what the real problem is, and here’s why this solution won’t work, but this other will, etcetera, etcetera.”
Instead, we get millions of words, both spoken and written, that waste time on winning and losing (note Douthat’s “glass jaw” analogy), and which are at bottom concerned more with who is “succeeding” and what is “successful,” than what is right, true, or important.