The Wonk Gap

Adam Serwer had a good point months back, during the Libya intervention:

More to the point, though, is that President Obama faces what you might call a “hack deficit.” There simply aren’t many legal scholars on the left who are willing to give Obama a pass. Unlike right-wing legal writers, left-leaning ones are treating Obama and Bush equally. Bruce Ackerman, who called for the impeachment of torture memo author Jay Bybee, has now blasted the White House, claiming it “has shattered the traditional legal process the executive branch has developed to sustain the rule of law over the past 75 years.” His colleague Jack Balkin wrote: “If one is disturbed by Bush’s misuse of the process for vetting legal questions, one should be equally disturbed by Obama’s irregular procedures.” Liberal writers like Eugene Robinson and James Fallows have also rejected Obama’s attempt to redefine the term hostilities. Even in his own administration, State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh was the only one of Obama’s top legal advisers who backed his interpretation of the War Powers Act while the OLC, Pentagon Counsel Jeh Johnson, and Attorney General Eric Holder all disagreed.

Jon Chait chimed in:

I think this phenomenon is best understood within a larger context. Conservatives have developed an ideological critique of a wide swath of elite institutions that serve a mediating role — media, academia, even science. In the right wing view, all these institutions are bastions of liberalism hiding behind a facade of disinterestedness. Conservatives have developed their own alternative networks, whose members operate under a far more partisan and ideological ethos, on the view that they’re merely offsetting the liberalism of their counterparts. Thus the political culture is tugged right by the asymmetry of liberal elites trying to act objectively and conservative counter-elites making no such attempt.

Or, to state it more simply, the right has us licked on the propaganda front. As I was saying before, when it comes to catchy slogans premised on their ideological assumptions (“job creators,” etc), lockstep message discipline, and mind-numbing repetition, liberals just can’t compete. That sort of thing makes liberals nervous, and many on the left take pride in pointing out our side’s perceived mistakes. This is sometimes intellectually respectable (Jack Balkin), sometimes craven (Cory Booker), but in any case it hinders the left’s ability to control the news cycle.

However, the left has an equally lopsided advantage when it comes to a different type of pundit: wonks. The left’s wonk bench is both wide and deep. These folks are ideologically inclined, certainly, but are also dedicated to study, empirical analysis, and informed debate. They argue mostly through evidence-based reasoning, sometimes shot through with a bit of sarcasm or anger, but they’re uncomfortable with abject partisanship.

They do have a strength, though, which was on vivid display yesterday when Mitt Romney finally released a few niggling details about some of his policies. Team Wonk sank their teeth into that like a bunch of half-starved wolverines. (Finally, something we can analyze!) Jon Cohn dug into Romney’s health-care plan (yikes), while Matt Yglesias found some disturbing implications in the education plan. Today, Suzy Khimm took a more even look at Romney’s education plan, and they’ll probably be gnawing over the scraps all weekend.

The right simply doesn’t have that kind of policy muscle, though it remains to be seen whether their increasing disregard for evidence and policy will hurt them electorally. Previously Romney’s strategy, to which he’ll probably return, is to avoid anything buy the vaguest details on his policy proposals, and it’s unclear whether running on no details is actually a disadvantage. I’d like to hope so, but only time will tell.

Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.