Cutting To the Chase

This seems to be the day for center-left bloggers to self-examine about how they talk about conservatives. Here’s my distinguished predecessor Kevin Drum over at MoJo:

I’ve got a problem. I figure nearly everyone is just going to laugh at me for this—though for different reasons on left and right—so I’m a little hesitant to even bother whining about it. But here it is.

I like snark. I’m perfectly happy to trade elbows with the opposition. But really, my preference is to spend most of my time talking seriously (or semi-seriously) about policy, and that means engaging with conservatives. The problem is that it’s just flatly hard to see the point of doing that these days. When I read even supposedly serious conservative policy proposals, I find them so egregiously empty that I feel like I’d be demonstrating terminal naivete by even taking them in good faith. So I don’t.

My better angels tell me I should assume good faith and spend the time it takes to write a long explanation of why this stuff won’t work. But why bother? Does anyone really think that the people who write these plans are unaware of the grade-school level problems with their proposals? Of course they are. They’ve been pointed out a hundred times, and they keep writing up the exact same proposals anyway. They barely even bother to change the wording….

There are hundreds of examples like this. The annual Paul Ryan budget fest is probably the most obvious one. Every year we comb through his budget and produce lots of charts and tables and trendlines, and every year the bottom line is exactly the same: Paul Ryan wants to cut taxes on the rich and cut spending on the poor. That’s it. That’s what he wants. That’s why his budget never changes, even after hundreds of detailed analyses showing exactly what it would mean for domestic spending. It’s because slashing spending on the poor is the whole point of the plan, not merely a bug of some kind that maybe Ryan doesn’t quite get.

I think there’s a happy medium here: examine conservative policy initiatives enough to expose the underlying ideology (the hard part is dealing with the evasions and deceptions that often encrust it), and then let it go. Just saying “conservatives bad; progressives good” isn’t enough; even if it’s true, people hardly need Kevin or me to tell them about it. And then, of course, there is politics: the underlying dynamics of the power game that determines who gets to put good and bad ideas into practice. If we constantly are disappointed to discover you can’t take the politics out of politics, it’s time to go work a picket line or voting line and remind ourselves why this all matters.

Like Kevin, I suspect, I run across countless conservative columns and blog posts and papers all the time and have to go through an internal sorting device before deciding whether and what to write about them. Is it just hackery? Is it so same-old same-old that you feel ashamed going over the same territory endlessly? And in either case, does the particular example illustrate some aspect of conservative thinking or Republican politics that’s worth knowing about, if only because the wiggy SOBs might win the next election? And frankly, is this or that piece of right-wing agitation, messaging or policy fun to send up, even if it’s hardly a major intellectual or literary accomplishment to do so?

And it’s nice when you do happen to run across an original and/or compelling idea from a conservative source, even if you know that if you boil down his or her thoughts long enough you will probably reach an irreducible point of ideological difference. If we get out of the habit of even trying that, we could miss something important.

There’s plenty to write and talk about, even if you can’t spend your days jousting with the Honorable Opposition in a battle of charts and footnotes and mutual compliments about each other’s talent and good will. For better or worse, this is hardly new: politics and ideology have always driven “policy ideas” far more than the reverse. Even in intramural arguments among progressives, you are not going to find too many pure empirical debates with ax-grinding strictly ruled out.

So we live with it, and Kevin Drum actually does a consistently fine job of navigating the rough terrain of politics and policy. But I’m sorry he seems to be so bummed about it today.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.