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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Douthat’s Agenda

I don’t know exactly what it is about being a “conservative columnist” at The New York Times, but now the young-un on that beat, Ross Douthat, is exhibiting the same habits as his older colleague, David Brooks. Brooks, of course, has mastered the art of looking down at the squabbling major parties from a great height, condemning them both, and somehow always coming down in the conclusion with recommendations that coincide with the short-term positioning of the Republican Party.
In his first column of the new year yesterday, Douthat performs a similar pirouette, with some interesting twists. His own skywalk begins with an Olympian view of America’s position in the world after the aughts–we’re now just a superpower, not a “hyperpower”–then predictably cites political polarization as one of the threats to our competitive position.
Warming to his task, Ross criticizes conservatives of the Bush era for a failed experiment in reduplicating Reaganomics, but then equals the score by accusing “Obama Democrats” of “returning to their party’s long-running pursuit of European-style social democracy — by micromanaging industry, pouring money into entitlement and welfare programs, and binding the economy in a web of new taxes and regulations.”
Aside from that very questionable characterization of the Democratic agenda, you will note that Douthat does not observe any causal relationship between one party’s “sins” and the other’s. Any “micromanaging industry” that’s going on presently is, rather obviously, the result of an economic calamity introduced under the previous national management. I don’t know if by “pouring money into entitlement and welfare programs” Douthat is referring to stimulus legislation used to counteract the disastrous effects of the economic calamity, or to the resolutely centrist health care reform proposal that is struggling through Congress after being signficantly compromised along the way. Any “new taxes” in prospect are part of said centrist plan, or part of the broader Democratic objective, announced not this year but as early as 2002, of reconfiguring the tax system to resemble what it looked like before the failed Republican exercise in Reaganomics that Douthat denounced earlier in his column.
All this is rather ho-hum High Broderism, but then Douthat gets more interesting when he proposes his own “center-right agenda” to replace the horrific move to the left essayed by Democrats. He begins with a tout court endorsement of the agenda recently laid out by Manhattan Institute wonk Jim Manzi, which is all the rage right now in what’s left of the non-Tea Party conservative commentariat:

Manzi’s National Affairs essay, a tour d’horizon of our socioeconomic situation, provides a solid place to start. He proposes a fourfold agenda: Unwind the partnerships forged between Big Business and Big Government in the wake of the 2008 crash; seek financial regulations that “contain busts,” by segregating high-risk transactions from lower-risk enterprises; deregulate the public school system, to let a thousand charter schools and start-ups bloom; and shift our immigration policy away from low-skilled immigration, and toward the recruitment of high-skilled émigrés from around the globe.
To this list, I would add tax reform and entitlement reform. The former should broaden the tax base while cutting taxes on work, childrearing and investment. The latter should means-test both Social Security and Medicare, reducing both programs’ spending on well-off retirees rather than questing fruitlessly for their privatization.

Now Manzi’s agenda has some virtues, but not so much as a Republican agenda. The Obama administration hopes to “unwind the partnerships” between government and business as fast as it can, and it, too, seeks to re-regulate the financial system in order to “segregate” high-risk transactions. For all the perennial conservative caterwauling about teachers’ unions holding a veto over good education policy, Obama, too, is a big fan of charter schools. This only looks like a “center-right agenda” if you buy the earlier Douthat premise that Obama is hell-bent on Swedenizing America.
Shifting the immigration system to favor higher skills (a very old “idea” also embraced today by Michael Barone) is not, as Douthat seems to think, a way to buy off conservative hatred of high levels of immigration; it may make the corporate community happy, but won’t do a thing for rank-and-file conservatives who dislike any wage competition from immigrants, and who want not a calibration of policies but wholesale expulsion of immigrants already in the country.
As for Douthat’s own supplementary ideas for a “center-right agenda,” he offers “tax reform” and means-testing Medicare and Social Security. Now “tax reform” as he is apparently discussing it is either one of two things: a continuation of the Bush-era failed experiment in Reaganomics involving deficit-financed tax cuts, however well-targeted they happen to be to workers and families, or a redesign of the system involving tax increases on some to pay for tax cuts for others. As Douthat knows, the constituency within the Republican Party for any tax increases on anybody could be comfortably accomodated in his own office.
Moroever, at a time when Republicans are shrieking about mean old Obama’s euthanasia-inspired efforts to cut Medicare benefits, Douthat is proposing the one “entitlement reform”–mean-testing–that’s even less popular than privatization. It ain’t happening, and thus, like most of the rest of Ross’s “center-right agenda,” it’s not a serious contribution to the actual debate.
Now you could give Ross Douthat credit for thinking outside the box and proposing things that his own party would never embrace, which is tempting since he is a decent, thoughtful man. Or you could conclude, as many of us have simiilarly concluded about David Brooks’ MO, that by condemning Democratic policies without offering anything realistic to replace them, he’s simply ratifying the “Party of No” agenda of killing Obama’s policy intiatives and then figuring out later what to do once Republicans are back in the saddle again. It all adds up to an endorsement of Republican victory in 2010 and 2012, even if that would predictably return the country to the conservative policies that so distressed Ross Douthat, in retrospect of course, over the last ten years.

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