The agony of reading Ross Douthat

Pity-hire Ross Douthat has typed out some very concerned words for his New York Times novelty column this morning under the headline, The Agony of the Liberals.  OH YAY, THIS SHOULD BE GOOD.  Liberals, he is quite sure, are simply tearing their insides to pieces with worry over some human being named Barack Obama, who has become a bit of a disappointment of a president.  What’s wrong with these agonized liberals who are attempting to hold their elected leaders accountable?

Douthat once again fulfills his role as the Reasonable Conservative, basically spouting Weekly Standard talking points peppered with superficial critiques of the right-wing for “balance.”  He’s guilty of that sin in today’s column, writing that it’s not only liberals who fall prey to the “worship of presidential power,” but also sometimes conservatives.  That may be the greatest understatement of the decade.  The Bush/Cheney co-presidency extended executive power to previously unseen levels.  One of Obama’s main campaign promises was to curtail those powers and to render the executive branch once again accountable under the law.  That, in fact, is one of the main progressive complaints about Obama, and the reason Jon Stewart’s take down of the administration’s civil liberties record last week resonated so strongly on the Left.   So, though it’s true that some Democrats/liberals are willing to blindly trust Obama with limitless executive power, many progressives are holding a Democratic president to the same standards they held a Republican one too.  Bush’s base didn’t begin to hold him accountable to them until the Harriet Miers debacle, already into his second term.

It’s also worth briefly noting that Douthat so-called political analysis is full of internal contradictions that have become so common that the chattering class doesn’t even see them any more.  Compare the following two passages, the first one praising Obama’s legislative accomplishments, the second claiming how dangerous they are for politicians.

This is the same Barack Obama, after all, who shepherded universal health care, the dream of liberals since the days of Harry Truman (if not Thomas Paine), through several near-death experiences and finally into law. It’s the same Obama who staked the fate of the American economy on a $787 billion exercise in Keynesian pump-priming. It’s the same Obama who has done more to advance liberal priorities than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

Now, to whatever extent one finds that passage true or persuasive (I find it to be neither), Douthat is clearly claiming that this president has had success is getting some signature bills passed.  But, in truth, those bills are very dangerous time bombs that will explode soon.

Nor do [liberals] acknowledge how much risk those same politicians have already taken on (with the first stimulus, the health care bill, and much else besides) in the name of theoretical propositions, while reaping little for their efforts save an ever-grimmer fiscal picture. [emphasis added.]

So much risk!  Taken on!  Much better to do nothing, silly liberals.  Or to compromise more, thus weakening your bills and demoralizing your base, so gain the approval of simpletons like Douthat, who will criticize you no matter what.  As Christopher Beam wrote in his fantastic article earlier this month, titled What if political scientists covered the news?

Still, Democrats hope that passing health care and financial regulatory reform will give them enough momentum to win in November. Unfortunately, there’s little relationship between legislative victories and electoral victories. Also, what the hell is “momentum”?

Prospects for an energy bill, meanwhile, are looking grim, since Obama has spent all his political capital. He used to have a lot. Now it’s gone. Why winning legislative battles builds momentum but saps political capital, I have no idea. Just go with it.

That’s exactly what Douthat is engaging in here: “Liberals should be happy about these victories, but these victories mean they all will lose so they shouldn’t go for any more victories.”

His broader point seems to be that American Liberalism itself is in it’s last dying gasps.

In this environment, the rage against Obama for not doing more, now, faster, becomes at least somewhat understandable. It’s not that he hasn’t done a great deal for liberals during his 18 months in office. It’s that liberalism itself may be running out of time.

The problem with Obama’s administration thus far isn’t that it has been too liberal, or that it’s idealistic liberal ideals have failed, it’s that the victories haven’t gone far enough, and the failures have been extensions of Bush-era criminality.  Progressives wanted a larger stimulus and a more humane health care bill, but those goals were simply impossible given the “political climate,” which is to say a broken two-party system owned by corporations with one party slightly to the left of the other on certain domestic issues.  And criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy and civil liberties record aren’t that he hasn’t done enough good yet, it’s that he has done too much bad.

To the extent that liberals are turning on Obama over specific policy disappointments, that’s a good thing.  Mindlessly defending him because he’s the captain of your team is destructive and childish.  The sooner those on the Left understand that the better.

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One Response to The agony of reading Ross Douthat

  1. Roy Brander says:

    Funny, “liberalism” as a philosophy seems to be in good health everywhere else but the USA.

    Actually, I think it’s in pretty good health in the USA – as a philosophy, even if the political expression of it is pretty frustrated.

    Don’t polls about basic philosophical questions, along the lines of “The government should do more to ensure…”

    a) good health care for all citizens
    b) better education
    c) fixed up infrastructure
    d) the environment is better protected

    …and a few more – don’t all those ideas get strong support, along the lines of the 70+% that were generally in favour of some kind of “public option”?

    If “liberalism” is roughly defined as “ensuring various basic structures and services by handling them in the public sphere with government money”, voters seem to understand it and want it.

    If the word means “a political movement that makes all that happen in the face of opposition from corporations and wealthy citizens”, I’m inclined to agree…because if Obama, Mister Change, can’t get it done, I can’t see anybody else doing it, either.

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