Political Animal


April 03, 2013 4:15 PM Cutting To the Chase

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • lou on April 03, 2013 5:09 PM:

    Just so nobody loses sight -- those whom the GOP represent continue to rake it in hand over fist while the GOP muddles, obfuscates and monkey wrenches the process while we scratch our heads in awe of their idiocy. Palin alone has likely taken about 5 years off the longevity of our civilization. We don't need to intellectualize their turning of the screw while watching with pained faces.

  • KK on April 03, 2013 10:01 PM:

    I'm 51 and graduated with a degree in Poli Sci and minors in Economics and History. Policy and how do you Serve the public good have been a part of my life forever. I've worked on Wall St for 25 years. I don't know what to say. Policy has NEVER been part of the rights MO, other then policies to restrict choices, women's rights, drinking age, drug laws etc. it's been a very long time since Nelson Rockefeller or even the elder Senator Chaffee from Rhode Island or the very fine Senator Jim Jeffords from Vt. They are anti everything unless its something silly like the Iraqi adventure. I've often asked many for answers to problems. They never have ideas other then it's someone else's problem. I could go on but I'm on a smart phone and my cab driver is a lost idiot.

  • Registeredguest on April 04, 2013 11:43 AM:

    This is how we arrived at "wash, rinse, repeat". It doesn't matter how often something is refuted, someone will come on Fox, or Breitbart, or MSNBC months, and years after to repeat the same argument no matter how many times it's been refuted.

    WMD? they went to Syria. Austerity doesn't work? Why you can't run a household this way.

    One of the reasons we suffer this is that for far too long the Democrats have let the repubs control the debate. How often do we hear about "job creators" and how often do Democrats refute it. Almost never. Typical example was Dem. representative Chris Van Hollen sitting dumbly by on the Joe Scar show as his republican counter talked about "the job creators".

    Did Obama run against failed conservative policies? Not much. Most of his campaign rhetoric was aimed at Romney specifically and not decades of failed conservative policies.

    And of course our media is no help at all. The Ryan budget gets air time but who knows what's in the the budget presented by the progressive caucus? Nada.

    And yes, it is hard to get past the lies and evasions to get to the substance. Paul Krugman experienced that when he debated Joe Scarborough and endured the "oh, wow" ire of Scarborough. Did Rose stop the debate and insist that Scarborough's assertion be thoroughly examined? Of course not. Moderators in debates never do.

    And that's how we've ended up as a nation that can't solve it's problems. One side, the conservative side, ignores facts that refutes its ideology and the Democrats are too weak to debate the issue.