Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Difficulty of Douthat

Ross Douthat is not my favorite political commentator.  Perhaps the best thing I can say about him is that he looks strikingly like my much loved 11th grade english teacher.

But Mr. Hansen would not approve.  By and large, it seems that Douthat's job description is to provide a coherent defense of incoherent Republican policies on the pages of the NYTimes's notoriously reality-based Op-Ed section.  In a way I feel for the man, because he finds himself trying to paint a facts-based right-wing position in a world where this poses mounting conceptual difficulties, and his latest article demonstrates this dramatically.  He starts by noticing that this looks like the ideal moment for a populist republican to run:
But the populists haven’t found a standard-bearer capable of taking advantage of this moment. Sarah Palin’s act grew tiresome, Mike Huckabee decided to stick with television, the Donald Trump bubble came and went, and Tim Pawlenty spent months running for president without anybody noticing. This left Michele Bachmann as the leading populist alternative to Romney — a status she enjoyed right up until the moment people started listening to what she was actually saying.
He then enters into a similarly exhaustive and damning list of terrible policy thoughts from populist conservatives, admitting outright:
The populist “answers” to middle-class economic anxieties, for instance, are usually gimmicks that would make the problem worse: Buchanan’s post-cold-war case for protectionism; Huckabee’s zeal for the so-called Fair Tax; Paul’s call for a return to the gold standard; Cain’s budget-busting “9-9-9” plan for tax reform. The populist “answer” to the growth of federal power is usually a rote invocation of the 10th Amendment, with little detail on how it should actually be applied. And at least during the debt ceiling debate, the populist “answer” to Wall Street’s influence in Washington was to shoot financial markets in the head by refusing to pay the country’s debts. 
However, something for Douthat does not seem to click.  A reading of his brief history suggests that perhaps the current state of angry insurgent populist tea parties is not devoid of strong candidates, but devoid of strong ideas.  His understatement that Bachman's popularity fell apart when people started listening to her exemplifies the problem not with the leaders, but with the movement.

The realities of modern conservative populism that Douthat so clearly lays out suggest not that this is a robust political movement that is in search of a standard-bearer, but instead that it is a field bursting with strong leaders, but devoid of ideas.  Douthat's list of failed candidates is not one of men and women with strong ideas cut down by personal foibles, but instead a list of people with everything but ideas.  If the list was comprised of John Edwards or Dukakis types, cut down by individualized faults (terrible human being, silly hat, respectively), he might have a case, but each has lost steam by virtue of their ideas, not their personality.

Similarly, he offers up a list of truly problematic ideas, but gives no countering account of promising thought in the movement.  He seems to hold out hope not only that the movement will develop a populist leader who can carry them to victory, but also by implication that it will, as if by magic, develop overnight a cannon of policy thought that holds actual promise for the country.  Indeed, I do feel for him: it must be rough to have your livelihood depend on looking at the facts, laying them out clearly, and then claiming hope for the current wave of conservative populism.

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