Even if you don’t venture into the wilder parts of the blogosphere and just stick with National Review, The Weekly Standard, National Affairs (which has made a big difference on this front) and a few other outlets, you’ll find a pretty lively debate about everything from financial reform to health care to taxes, with plenty of room for diversity and disagreement and heterodoxy. I’m not going to argue that this is a golden age of conservative domestic policy, exactly, but I do think that the end of the Bush administration has opened up space for a lot of interesting conversations, and allowed some impressive younger thinkers come to fore. Jim Manzi, Yuval Levin, James Capretta, Nicole Gelinas, Brad Wilcox, Luigi Zingales, Ramesh Ponnuru, my former co-author … maybe it isn’t the lost early-1970s world of Commentary and The Public Interest, but it certainly isn’t an intellectual wasteland.
The problem, as I’ve argued before, is that with rare exceptions (a Mitch Daniels, a Paul Ryan), there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them. This was true during the stimulus debate, it was true during the health care debate, it’s been largely true during the financial-reform debate, and I’m worried that it will be true once we start debating the deficit in earnest as well…
What you don’t hear enough from the pundits and intellectuals, I think, are complaints about this state of affairs. Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.
In National Review, Jonah Goldberg says that Mr. Douthat is “basically right” in his take (though he reserves the right to revise and extend his remarks). I hope he’ll weigh in again, because I’m a bit confused. In another recent post on epistemic closure in conservatism, Mr. Goldberg wrote, “It seems to me that when liberals control all of the policy-making apparatus, being the party of no is a perfectly rational stance that has less to do with a poverty of good ideas than an empirical appreciation for political reality. Lord knows the Democrats did not ride back to power on the backs of nimble and novel public policy prescriptions.”
This seems somewhat contradictory.
In his post, Mr. Douthat asserts that conservative magazines and columnists should call out GOP politicians for offering bromides instead of substance. If that is basically right, then isn’t Mr. Goldberg’s writing in defense of “The Party of No” a small example of the way conservative intellectuals are complicit in the dearth of “nuanced right-of-center discussion”?
Some of Mr. Goldberg’s critics assume that he is never critical of the right, a charge that I find unfair, but whereas Mr. Douthat thinks, for example, that “there aren’t many Republican politicians who seem interested in taking up the best right-of-center policy ideas and fighting for them” during the health care debate, Mr. Goldberg believes the GOP “did succeed in undermining the Democrats’ central talking point: that the Republican party has no ideas on health care. It may have been dull enough to force Osama bin Laden from his cave, but the Republicans patiently telegraphed an inconvenient truth: They do care about health-care reform; they just loathe Democrats’ version of it (and, yes, have much to gain by blocking it).”
If the stimulus bill is good policy, let Democrats take the credit for it and Republicans the blame for opposing it. If it’s a disaster, let all praise and honor go to the GOP and let Democrats pay the price.
Democracy is about disagreement; let the parties have their disagreement.
I’m not saying Mr. Goldberg is wrong on the merits here — I am skeptical of the stimulus myself — but I just don’t think that his approach to the issue, or his writing on the health care debate, or his approach to punditry generally, is compatible with believing that Mr. Douthat has things basically right. Or again, in his post, Mr. Douthat says this about the unwillingness of conservative intellectuals to call out Republican politicians:
This is part of why David Frum attracts so much attention, positive and negative: Not because his policy preferences are so far outside the conservative mainstream, but because he’s made it his business to hold various prominent right-wingers and Republicans accountable for being vacuous or inflammatory, instead of just training all his fire on liberals. I don’t always agree with the targets he picks and way he goes about it, but conservatism needs more of that kind of internal criticism, not less.
Here is Mr. Goldberg on David Frum. Suffice it to say that his analysis is much different. I’m left wondering what exactly Mr. Douthat and Mr. Goldberg agree on, beyond the fact that the right’s foreign policy debate is largely closed to anyone who disagrees with the aggressively hawkish consensus.
If I might pivot to a related point, Mr. Douthat says the right would be better off if its intellectuals would “call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.” I agree, but I’d go a step farther: National Review and The Weekly Standard should rethink the kinds of politicians they get behind, whether its the former throwing its support behind a dubiously qualified Texas governor during the 1999 GOP primaries, or the latter leading the charge to imbue former Governor Sarah Palin with a coherent political philosophy that she most certainly doesn’t possess. What incentives can there be for rising politicians on the right to embrace substance when smart young writers like Matthew Continetti at publications like The Weekly Standard join talk radio and Fox News in lavishing their attention on perhaps the least substantive GOP politician in America today?
I am curious to see whether these problems persist or abate as the GOP field shapes up in advance of the 2012 primaries — and if going forward Mr. Goldberg endeavors “to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”