Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 9, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

REPUBLICANS AND RESULTS....Much of the discussion in the previous post revolved around the question of whether the press has been permanently energized by Katrina or whether it will soon return to its slothful he-said/she-said ways. Unfortunately, this strikes me as a moot point, since as near as I can tell press coverage of the White House has already returned to its old self.

That should bother me, I suppose, but since the press has operated this way since about World War II, it's hard to get too upset about it. Instead, what I really wonder is whether Katrina will finally wake reporters up to the storyline buried until now that has always struck me as the one that truly defines the nature of the Bush administration.

The lesson of Katrina, after all, is not that the White House is bad at handling hurricanes. The lesson is that the Bush White House doesn't care much about whether things actually work. This is why they screwed up Iraq: they had an idea of what they wanted to accomplish, but figured that good results would take care of themselves as long as they applied energy and conservative principles. It's why the Medicare prescription bill turned out to be such a Frankenstein's monster: they knew they wanted to give seniors their pills, but they didn't really care much about actually implementing a sound policy. And it's why Republicans are conducting a war on science these days: to them, science is just something that gets in the way of what they want to do. The fact that eventually you're going to run aground if science is against you doesn't seem to register with them.

Along these lines, I'd recommend that people reread two articles written a while back. The first is "Confidence Men," from the September 2002 issue of the Monthly. In it, Josh Marshall asks "why the myth of Republican competence persists, despite all the evidence to the contrary." It's a good question, and one that people might be more willing to pay attention to now that Katrina has rubbed their noses in it.

The second is "Fact Finders," published earlier this year in The New Republic. In it, Jon Chait points out that although both liberals and conservatives have dogmas and ideologies of their own, liberal policies tend to be focused on particular outcomes. If liberals can be convinced that their policies no longer produce those outcomes, they'll change them. Maybe slowly, and maybe only under pressure, but eventually they'll change them. Empirical results matter, after all.

Modern conservatives, by contrast, care far more about their principles than they do about results: "Empirical reasoning simply does not drive their thinking. What appears to be conservative economic reasoning is actually a kind of backward reasoning. It begins with the conclusion and marches back through the premises." Read the whole thing to get a better sense of Chait's case.

This is the lens that explains so much of what's happened over the past four and a half years of the Bush White House. All presidents have personal ideologies that guide them, and all presidents are loyal to their friends and their party, but most presidents also understand that they have to get things done, and that puts limits on ideology and loyalty. In the Bush White House, they don't and it doesn't.

POSTSCRIPT: In a somewhat different way, David Ignatius makes the same point today:

This is the moment for the Party of Performance to take center stage. The breakdown in public life was obvious before Katrina. We have a government that can't control its borders, can't find a viable strategy for its war in Iraq, can't organize the key agencies to address the terrorism problems it has been trumpeting. The yearning in the country for something different has been palpable this year.

I'm not quite sure what makes him think this yearning has been "palpable" this year, but it would be nice if the press picked up on it.

Kevin Drum 12:31 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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