Friday, February 19, 2010

"a pretty common failing"

Yglesias: Straw Manned

Jon Chait zings Reihan Salam for what is I think a pretty common failing among the smarter set of conservative commentators, namely a tendency to dismiss as straw-man characterizations positions that are in fact the mainstream conservative orthodoxy. In this case that includes the assertion that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has had no positive impact on the economy. You see something similar with the view that climate change is a made-up conspiracy cooked out of thin air by Al Gore and some UN guys. Or that reducing tax rates is a surefire way to increase revenue.

I wish it were the case that these were straw man views, invented by liberals to make the right-wing look bad. But if you listen to what the most powerful conservative politicians and media figure in the land say, these are the things they offer as the basis of conservative policy on macroeconomic stabilization, on climate and energy, and on the long-term fiscal challenge. Is it nuts? Well, yes it is. But there you have it. If you want to find what counts as a fringe position, you can find tea party leader Richard Mack talking about states’ rights to secession.

Kevin Drum continues: Which Conservatives Matter?

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt took issue with conservatives who think the stimulus didn't do any good for the economy. The next day, Reihan Salam took issue with David Leonhardt:

Leonhardt refers to "hard-core skeptics," and my worry is that this does a lot of the work for him. Critics like Desmond Lachman believe that the stimulus was poorly timed and poorly designed....Others are concerned about the impact of heavy deficit spending on long-term growth prospects, i.e., the fiscal stimulus program has a beneficial growth impact in the short term, but exacerbating extreme fiscal policy swings are very difficult to sustain....So is Leonhardt taking issue with people who believe that spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the space of a few month would have zero impact on GDP growth? In that case, I would enthusiastically agree with him.

....But again, I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth. It is very hard to imagine that spending an enormous sum of money would not.

Reihan claims that Leonhardt is arguing with a strawman, but as both Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias point out, there really are lots of conservatives — including most of the loudest ones — who believe that the stimulus literally had no impact on jobs or growth — or maybe even a negative one. It's hardly a stretch to say that this is a pretty widely held right-wing view, and Matt draws a broad conclusion from Reihan's reluctance to acknowledge this: "I think [this is] a pretty common failing among the smarter set of conservative commentators, namely a tendency to dismiss as straw-man characterizations positions that are in fact the mainstream conservative orthodoxy."

Well, yes. I'm reminded of Megan McArdle's revelation a couple of years ago when she discovered that mainstream conservatives really do have a party line that insists tax cuts always raise revenues. "A conservative publication," she admitted, "just spiked a book review because I said that the Laffer Curve didn't apply at American levels of taxation....I suppose I ought to have known, but I didn't. Go ahead liberals, pile on: you told me so."

But I think there's something else going on here too. In his post about the stimulus bill, Reihan is implicitly suggesting that liberals ought to be engaging with the best of conservative thinkers, many of whom hold nuanced and moderate positions. And it's true: some of them do. The problem is that in the real world, these nuanced and moderate thinkers have virtually no influence. Among actual politicians and high-profile yakkers, it's nearly unanimously held that, for example, the stimulus had no positive effect on the economy; that tax cuts always increase revenues; that Europeans all have poorer healthcare than Americans; and that man-made global warming is a delusion. Reihan and Megan and others like them may hold more careful views, but the vast bulk of the conservative movement simply doesn't. And that's the reality of the world that liberals have to deal with.

Now, whenever something like this comes up, I wonder if there's something similar on the liberal side of the aisle. Are there hot button issues on which the Kevin Drums and Jon Chaits of the world hold moderate, techno-googoo views, but on which elected politicians and bigfoot TV pundits unanimously insist on extreme, lockstep views? I can't really think of any. Taxes? Healthcare? National security? Immigration? Climate change? Education? Abortion? Gay rights? Labor law? On all of these, either liberal politicians hold a fairly broad variety of leftish views (national security, immigration, education) or else they hold pretty similar views but so does the commentariat (climate change, gay rights). No important issue comes to mind in which the liberal think tank community holds a lively and diverse set of opinions but actual liberal politicians unanimously maintain a death grip on some extreme, base-pleasing position.

But that doesn't mean there isn't one. It just means I can't think of it. So help me out. Can anyone come up with a few good examples?

Drum: Conservatives and the Stimulus

Following up on my post yesterday about the stimulus, Robert Waldmann makes a good catch. Reihan Salam had said, "I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth," but it turns out that not only is this untrue, it's spectacularly untrue. Here's a CNN poll from a few weeks ago:

So 41% of American adults think the stimulus had no effect or made things worse. CNN doesn't provide crosstabs, but I think it's a pretty good guess that this belief is primarily held by conservatives and right-leaning independents who take their cues from conservative media. In other words, it's likely that upwards of three-quarters or more of conservatives believe the stimulus had no effect.

That doesn't happen unless conservative pundits and politicians are almost unanimously pushing exactly that belief. There might be a few conservative thinkers out there who are offering up judicious, nuanced conclusions about the stimulus, but their effect on public discourse in general is nil. Among the vast majority of conservative opinion leaders, not only is it untrue that few people doubt ARRA helped perk up growth, but apparently virtually everyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth.

Atrios: Lies and the Lying Liars
Pawlenty edition.
"President Obama was in a grade school classroom speaking to elementary school children and he was using a teleprompter," Pawlenty said Friday in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

"You've got to be kidding me," he added. "That's not a joke. That's a real story."

Actually, it's not. The tale spread by bloggers over the Internet and in some media, including the Comedy Channel's Jon Stewart, blended together two Obama appearances Jan. 19 at the Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Virginia, to make it appear he used the teleprompter when speaking to a classroom of 30 pupils.
The thing about the whole OBAMA TELEPROMPTER MUAAHAHAAHAHA think is that it became a joke among reporters, not just conservatives, who apparently never noticed that presidents regularly used teleprompters until Obama took office.
Booman: Here We Go Again
Attracting people to the Republican Party has mainly been a con-game since at least the New Deal. For example, let's look at this tidbit from Politico's coverage of today's CPAC conference.

Ascendant are groups that focus on fiscal issues such as reducing government spending and taxation, which last year drove tens of thousands of new conservative activists to the streets and town halls in protest of big spending initiatives backed by President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. Groups that concentrate on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage have been relegated to a lower profile, as, to some extent, have those focusing on national security.

Grass-roots organizations have seen their membership rolls, coffers and standing boosted by the new activists, many — but not all — of whom identify with the cacophonous tea party movement.

These activists generally have been leery of the Republican Party, as well as established big-name conservative groups and leaders who made their reputations in the Washington game, particularly those seen as tainted by a pay-to-play Beltway culture or linked to a George W. Bush-era GOP establishment viewed as having abandoned its principles.

So, the new game (which is the same as the old game we played in the 1970's and the 1990's) is to get rid of those profligate Republicans-in-name-only and put a bunch of real hard-core deficit hawks in Congress? Right? Why would the next time be any different?

How do Republicans explain their failure to reduce spending or balance budgets when they are given the opportunity? They always say the same thing. "We came to Washington, and Washington changed us. We lost our principles." This is, of course, either rank bullshit or just something so inevitable that it will repeat itself until people stop believing it.

But, maybe you need some proof. Remember Tom DeLay and Rick Santorum's K Street Project? That took "getting in bed with lobbyists" to a whole other level. Republicans will always increase spending and lower taxes because that way they can steal coming and going. You want an outlet for your anger against the elites? The GOP will never be it. Whatever crumbs the hoi polloi get, they get from the Democratic Party.

Sully: Why Does CPAC Exist?

Ambinder asks:

No one ought to be begrudge conservatives for having a good time, but a good time isn't what the movement needs: what it needs is an infrastructure that exists to promote the ideas of the millennial generation. CPAC does not provide that or even hint that such a thing exists. Note: do not confuse an amplification infrastructure -- the conservatives have a huge megaphone, ranging from talk radio to Pajamas Media to Fox News -- with a political infrastructure, which turns ideas into policies and modernizes the party.

Intellectually honest conservatives are homeless.

CPAC speakers forego fact for fanfare Feb. 18: Rachel Maddow fact-checks some of the speakers at the CPAC convention in Washington, D.C. Thursday and is joined by Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson for analysis of the intersection of Republican politics and the conservative movement.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Yglesias: ABC Can’t Find Economists Who Think the Stimulus Failed

A funny thing seems to have happened on the way to a he-said, she-said story for ABC on the stimulus:

“The stimulus worked,” said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Bank. Without it, “the unemployment rate would probably be closer to 11 percent” and the economy might not have grown at all last year.

Mark Zandi of Moody’s thought the nation would be “still in recession.”

“It played a significant role supporting recovery,” said economist Diane Swonk of Mesirow Financial.

Not all the economists who responded to our survey agreed the stimulus was necessary.

“Throwing a trillion dollars at anything will move it,” said Standard and Poor’s David Wyss, “but the recovery would be beginning and the unemployment rate nearing a peak” without it.

“The economy would probably be recovering,” argued Jay Bryson of Wells Fargo, just maybe not “as fast as it is.”

They’ve attempted to frame this as a standard piece of “experts disagree on shape of the earth” shoddy policy journalism, but what you’re actually seeing here is that despite their best efforts they can’t find anyone to endorse the standard Heritage/NRO/GOP view that the stimulus is harming the economy. Hoffman and Zandi deem the stimulus vital. Swonk says it played a “significant role” in bolstering recovery. Wyss is sniffy and derisive, but the essence of his sniffy derision is to say that of course the stimulus helped. And Bryson says the economy recovered faster because of the stimulus. Everyone agrees!

John Cole: Redefining Liberalism

Ladies and Gentlemen, meet the fifth most influential “liberal” journalist (according to the daily beast):

5. Fred Hiatt

Editorial Page Editor, The Washington Post

Although many on the left would question Hiatt’s presence on this list—his near-neocon position on foreign policy enrages the left-wing blogosphere—there is no doubt at all that he is a traditional liberal in all matters domestic. The steward of a sober and constructive editorial column, he is paid great heed by the administration. He is much less dogmatic, as an editorial page editor, than his counterpart at the Times.

Fred Hiatt’s (based on his columns and his hires) three biggest issues are the neocon dream of empire and permanent war, completely dismantling the social safety net, and climate denialism. How anyone could confuse Hiatt with liberalism simply escapes me- he is a liberal in much the same way that I am a libertarian transhumanist- he isn’t at all.

I do a lot of reading of Hiatt and the WaPo (although not as much as Doug), and what I have come to the conclusion is that Hiatt’s key characteristic is that he is just not very bright. He falls for false equivalencies almost every time he is given an opportunity, he is easily seduced by those he finds impressive and by those in a position of power, and he just isn’t much if an idea person so much as someone who prides himself in serving as the vanguard for the conventional wisdom. Read his writing- the Daily Beast confuses sobriety with caving in to Beltway groupthink. He isn’t particularly clever, his language is dull and pedestrian and permanently without any charm or wit, and I have never once seen what could be considered an original thought. That is the real untold story about Fred Hiatt- he just isn’t very smart.

Which means he is exactly where he belongs in our current joke of a meritocracy.

*** Update ***

It is worth examining what the “liberal” Fred Hiatt has done to the Washington Post:

Speaking of Fred Hiatt’s absurd claim that people who don’t like George Will spreading global warming misinformation should “debate” him, rather than expect the Post to run a correction …

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured op-eds by Henry Kissinger, David Broder, Bill Kristol, David Ignatius, and George Will. Today’s brings op-eds from George Will, Michael Gerson, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Kinsley, and Eugene Robinson.

That’s ten columns total. One is by a liberal (Robinson), one by a contrarian who may lean left (Kinsley), two by centrist Villagers (Broder and Ignatius – and remember, Village centrists are typically to the right of the actual center.) And six are by staunch conservatives – Will (twice), Krauthammer, former Nixon aide Kissinger, former Bush I aide Kristol, and former Bush II aide Gerson.

This was before Hiatt hired torture apologist and Bush’s other speechwriter, Marc Thiessen.

The only upside to this list of 25 influential liberals is that Marty Peretz is not on it.

Think Progress: CPAC audience boos former GOP Rep. Bob Barr for saying waterboarding is torture.

This afternoon, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held a debate titled “Does Security Trump Freedom?” that featured former GOP congressman and Libertarian Presidential candidate Bob Barr, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), and former Bush Assistant Attorney General Viet Dinh. During one point in the debate, Barr condemned the right’s call to try terror suspects exclusively in military tribunals and defended plans to try suspects in civilian courts. He then insisted that waterboarding is torture, which prompted the crowd to start booing. As they continued to boo, he pointed to the audience and asked, “How would you like to be waterboarded? Try that!”:

BARR: But I don’t think we should go down the path of allowing our leaders to have their cake and eat it too. There is nothing magical about a military tribunal. They don’t have necessarily better lawyers than the civilian sector. I think I have a lot more faith in our US attorneys who are nonpolitical than my colleagues on the other side of this debate. We can try them. We should try them. That is precisely, Jay, what our law provides for. And the first time we’re faced with a situation we say, “Oh we’re going to have them go to the military let them torture them for a while, it’s not enhanced interrogation technique. Waterboarding is torture! How would you like to be waterboarded? Try that!

Watch it:

Attorney General Eric Holder has declared that waterboarding is torture, and due to the illegality of the procedure, the United States has prosecuted it in the past. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly applauded the torture technique, and has admitted he was a “big supporter” of its use by the previous administration.

Booman: Cognitive Dissonance

It's interesting to watch Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) speak before the Conservative Political Action Conference. He is making a passionate case for tax cuts for the rich (because someone told him 'I ain't never been hired by a poor man'). But he did this immediately after talking about the importance of balanced budgets. No one appears to question how those two things go together. Even if it were a consistent philosophy, it's clear that the Republicans neither would or could make the kind of massive cuts in federal spending that would be required to keep the budget balanced if the current tax cuts for the rich are not allowed to sunset (let alone if they were cut even more).

And I really think this is a core issue in American politics. The Republicans do have principles that most people understand. But those principles are totally unrealistic. It's as if the Democrats ran on a real socialist platform (say, nationalizing the energy sector and providing a single-payer 100% government-run health care system) and then made no effort to enact it. And, then, once thrown out of power for doing the opposite of what they said they were going to do, they just went back to making the exact same promises they made before. And, then, they repeated their betrayal and made the same promises all over again. At what point do the Republicans lose credibility?

To use one example, the president just used his executive power to impanel a commission to address our structural deficits. Why did he do that? Because the Democrats can never agree to cut Medicare or Social Security benefits and the Republicans can never agree to raise taxes. (I might add, that neither of them seem willing to cut military spending). So, a commission is needed to provide some political cover to politicians that are afraid to take on their bases. Why is this relevant? Because it's the same reason that elected Republicans never make the kind of budget cuts needed to match their tax cuts. Cutting taxes is the easiest vote you can cast. But cutting funding for popular programs is unpopular. That's why you know the Republicans will never keep their promises to balance the budget. Only a party that is willing to tax at an adequate level to finance their operations can possibly balance the budget.

It was jarring to see Dick Cheney get a welcome response at the CPAC conference when he is the one who said deficits don't matter:

[Treasury Secretary Paul] O'Neill, fired in a shakeup of Bush's economic team in December 2002, raised objections to a new round of tax cuts and said the president balked at his more aggressive plan to combat corporate crime after a string of accounting scandals because of opposition from "the corporate crowd," a key constituency.

O'Neill said he tried to warn Vice President Dick Cheney that growing budget deficits-expected to top $500 billion this fiscal year alone-posed a threat to the economy. Cheney cut him off. "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said, according to excerpts. Cheney continued: "We won the midterms (congressional elections). This is our due." A month later, Cheney told the Treasury secretary he was fired.

Notice that it was Ronald Reagan who proved that deficits don't matter. If that is what Dick Cheney thinks Ronald Reagan stood for then why would Reagan-worshipping deficit hawks cheer Dick Cheney? Is it because they're fucking stupid or they just don't care?

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