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.

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46 thoughts on “On Ross Douthat, “Glass Jaw” Analogies, and Always Trying to Find a New Angle

    • That’s true iff you’re working in a political system that’s not seriously warped if not broken completely. It’s not true, on the other hand, if you have to work within the US Senate.

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    • It’s a political agenda either way, no? I’m looking in the dictionary and it’s not corrorborating your stance. Care to clarify?

      And the job of people writing and talking about politics and policies should not be, do a lot of people already agree with X, or will team A be successful at pushing it through despite team B.

      What actually matters is whether X is a good policy and should be adopted. I couldn’t give to $hits whether Douthat thinks liberalism’s preferred policies are popular. What I want to know is whether the disagrees with them, and if so, why.

      Anything outside of that isn’t just a waste of space, it’s actually negative space cause it takes precious time away from actually talking about what matters like, how do we balance the environment against economic growth, what are the moral, financial, and organizational concerns regarding the administration of health care, and will a bigger stimulus, no stimulus, or just a different stimulus help the economy recover?

      He spends the post talking about those subjects, but doesn’t actually engage with them. He talks on and on about: this is what happened, this is what liberalism had to do with it, this is why liberalism is failing.

      It’s the kind of useless and misleading monday morning quarterbacking we could all do without.

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  1. Ethan,

    I think Douthat hits the nail on the head and you are the one in denial.

    The president is a charismatic figure who we elected based upon his promise and vision. But once elected, his job was to actually move this country forward. That means he is responsible for the policy that can be actually advanced, not the policy die hard liberals would like to shove down our throats. He chose the stimulus, and squandered it on payoffs of his political cronies and by incentivizing people not to work. Probably a pretty stupid move, no?

    Instead of concentrating on the actions necessary to stimulate the economy, like less regulation and cronyism, he chose to spend two years working on a bureaucratic nightmare that will screw up health insurance markets more that they already are, and that increases the cost of hiring people, especially the less skilled. Really, really monumentally stupid move. A twofer.

    Now you suggest he should work on immigration and global climate change? Why not just piss into the wind? It would be as likely to help the average American.

    For a president to be effective, they need to have a sense what the people want and need and find bipartisan support to deliver it. On the economy, he should have been substantively delivering less bureaucratic micromanagement, less cronyism, lower corporate taxes, lower barriers of hiring and firing, fewer mandated benefits, better intellectual property laws, a fix to this boutique gas blend rip-off scheme, and an end to corporate welfare/bailouts and ethanol/farm subsidies.

    On health care, he should have worked with the republicans to design a reform package that the American public wanted that he then forced through the Democrats and special interests. In other words, the winning move for a liberal president was to design health care that everyone liked and that the liberals could live with.

    Ethan, what is “right, true and important” to Americans? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

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    • Instead of concentrating on the actions necessary to stimulate the economy, like less regulation and cronyism, he chose to spend two years working on a bureaucratic nightmare that will screw up health insurance markets more that they already are, and that increases the cost of hiring people, especially the less skilled. Really, really monumentally stupid move. A twofer.

      Do you have employer-provided insurance? Does it pay for most of your medical coverage? Because not everyone has that kind of insurance. Many folks could not get insurance at all, even if they wanted it and could pay for it. Many others found they were dropped from insurance they had when they became ill. To suggest that the insurance market was ‘working’ fails all sensibilities; it worked for some folk. For others? Not so much.

      Furthermore, addressing these problems — people who could not access the insurance markets — was the #1 issue for Obama when he ran for election. He won in a landslide. Some of us call health care a mandate.

      On the economy, he should have been substantively delivering less bureaucratic micromanagement, less cronyism, lower corporate taxes, lower barriers of hiring and firing, fewer mandated benefits, better intellectual property laws, a fix to this boutique gas blend rip-off scheme, and an end to corporate welfare/bailouts and ethanol/farm subsidies.

      What cronyism? Give examples. Taxes were lowered; significantly. Particularly for small businesses. Tax breaks were given for hiring. And Congress obstructed legislation; Republicans in Congress, including eliminating ethanol subsidies.

      On health care, he should have worked with the republicans to design a reform package that the American public wanted that he then forced through the Democrats and special interests. In other words, the winning move for a liberal president was to design health care that everyone liked and that the liberals could live with.

      The ACA is filled with ‘republican designs.’ If it had been a Democratic plan, there would have been a public-option; the ability to purchase insurance directly from the government instead of insurance companies.

      You don’t have to like Obama, but making up a history that didn’t happen is bogus. Argue with reality, not your fantasy about what happened.

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      • No I do not have employer provided insurance, my wife and I have an privatr HSA plan. But you miss my point completely. I am not arguing against health care reform — it is much needed. I am arguing for health care reform designed in a way which the opposition party and the majority of Americans would like, and that the liberals would tolerate and the special interest would consign themselves to. I’ve written many comments laying out what a good plan could look like, and will not bore you with a repetition. He squandered his mandate.

        The cronyism of GE, GM, Chrysler, Solyndra, Goldman Sachs, the health care providers, the corn lobby, the sugar lobby, the Mohair lobby, the defense contractors, blah blah blah.

        Your comment that he did a few things just gets to the fundamental disconnect between the far left and the rest of us. I don’t give a damn that he did a few token things. His job was to provide leadership and vision out of the greatest recession of our lives. I could give a list of hundreds of things, no thousands of things he should do, or more appropriately undo, as most of them are things that need to be undone from past interference.

        You really seem to believe that the effectiveness of a senior manager or general is to bring back a list of things he did to try to address the problem, and that is an indication of success?

        You sound like a government worker.

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    • “The president is a charismatic figure who we elected based upon his promise and vision. But once elected, his job was to actually move this country forward. That means he is responsible for the policy that can be actually advanced, not the policy die hard liberals would like to shove down our throats. He chose the stimulus, and squandered it on payoffs of his political cronies and by incentivizing people not to work.”

      nationalreview.com/corner/329946/27-days-go-richard-brookhiser

      Absolutely. Here it is October 10 and it’s another good polling day for Governor Romney. Just yesterday libs were spinning themselves away from one national poll which came in at +4 Romney and you turn around and today there’s a new national poll +5 Romney. It’s like God Himself is making a special effort to piss all over and demoralize the libs.

      Well, at least as far as Rick Brookhiser goes, this is why. We’re having difficult times in America, and President Obama has a record. That makes things difficult from the get-go. But when President Obama just simply ignores his record, and the problems it was supposed to ameliorate, well there’s only so long you can continue to defy political gravity.

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  2. 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,

    And of course we all know Technocrat Krugman was right. Because…well….um….

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    • Well, short of finding a parallel US were there was exactly what Krugman wanted, the best you can do is…read what he said would happen, and then see what happened.

      I can’t say for certain that what he advocated would have turned out BETTER, but his predictions about what was passed were pretty accurate.

      It wasn’t hindsight. He said right there at the time, before it was signed into law, that it was too small and wouldn’t do much more than basically prevent state cutbacks from making it worse.

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      • Also, actual evidence came out showing the economy contracted even further in the 4Q of ’08 then was known at the time. But, hey, beating up on Krugman due to the fact he doesn’t think immediate austerity for the middle and working class isn’t a sure way to turn around an economy is a fun little sport libertarians have (and on this one, I’m OK with just saying libertarians, as seen by Hanley’s usual mild mannerness going to snark for no good reason).

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        • Hanley’s usual mild mannerness

          Eh? Occasionally might have been a better word choice.

          going to snark for no good reason

          Actually, there is good reason. I’m sick of liberals’ fawning over Krugman, the assumption that he speaks with econo-papal infallibility. Seriously, “Krugman predicted that X wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t! That means he’s right that Y would have happened if we’d only done what he suggested!” is unworthy of educated and intelligent people. It’s not actually Krugman I’m critiquing here, but his liberal bootlickers. They’re exactly like those libertarians who orgasm at the name Rothbard.

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      • He said right there at the time, before it was signed into law, that it was too small and wouldn’t do much more than basically prevent state cutbacks from making it worse.

        Successfully predicting that policy X won’t produce outcome Y does not mean you have made a correct statement about why outcome Y didn’t occur.

        There are plenty of economists who have critiqued Krugman’s claims, but I don’t see many liberals bothering to take them seriously. Given that many of the people who are devout acolytes of Krugman know precious little macro themselves, there’s not a much better explanation for their devotion than that Krugman says the things they want to be true, and his critics say the things they don’t want to be true.

        That is, liberals’ trust in Krugman is more faith-based than knowledge-based. If Krugman is right, they’ve still followed him for the wrong reasons.

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  3. I think I liked Ross’s post more than you, Ethan, but I certainly didn’t agree with it all. I thought his issue, though, was that he mistook the inherent sclerosis of the Constitutional system for uniquely symmetrical problems with the two parties. If he can write the same thing about Conservatism and Liberalism within the span of a few weeks, maybe the issue isn’t the isms so much as the system in which they operate? Alternatively, one could argue they’re both flawed in the same way because they’re both parties of capitalism, so the means through which they could have a wider appeal are blocked off by their ideological/economic necessities.

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