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Obligations of Pundits, A Reply

This post may not hold a lot of interest to readers who aren't Ross Douthat, but what the heck, it's only the internet:

Ross Douthat has a generally decent reply to something I wrote a few days ago, pointing out the ways that highbrow and lowbrow conservative attacks have effectively worked in tandem:

Actually, what I “claim to want most of all” isn’t an excise tax on high-value insurance plans; it’s a different health care bill. The excise tax was one of the better features of the current legislation, and I’m sorry to see it weakened. But I think the overall design of the bill is a mistake, with or without that tax, and so I’m not going to call for Republican Senators to rush in and cut a deal to save it.

Okay, fair enough. I was thinking more of David Brooks and, come to think of it, centrist (rather than conservative) pundits who have held out their potential support for a health care bill with serious cost control features. Sorry to unfairly implicate Douthat.

But then Douthat starts to go badly awry:

In Chait’s view, and the view of many liberal pundits, this isn’t good enough. When the Republican Party is bereft of ideas, and the Democratic Party is flush with them, the thing for serious people to do is get with the liberal program, and spend our time either flogging Sarah Palin and John Boehner or rallying support for the right-of-center elements in left-of-center bills. They’re disappointed that I’m not inclined to that approach, which is fair enough. But I’m disappointed, too. I look at liberal commentators and see a group that’s intent on being on-side against Republicans, and that’s willing to downplay significant weaknesses in major legislation (be it the stimulus, cap-and-trade, or now health care) in the quest to get things done. And when I try to imagine how the writers at the New Republic would respond if a Republican administration, in a time of massive fiscal crisis, pushed the main funding mechanism for a new entitlement out eight years from the time the bill was passed — well, I don’t have to imagine very hard.

A few points. First, I never said that he or anybody has an obligation to be politically constructive. His only obligation to to write honest and interesting material, which he frequently does. Second, his point about the "main funding mechanism" being pushed out eight years is just wrong. The health care bill is mainly funded by Medicare cost reductions and other tax increases -- the Cadillac tax will be reducing costs mainly in the out years.

Last, I'm baffled by Douthat's claim that liberal commentators "downplay significant weaknesses in major legislation." TNR has published extensive criticism of the legislation Douthat cites. You can read criticism of the stimulus here, here, and here. You can find criticism of the health care bill here, here, here and here, and cap and trade here, here and here.

I wouldn't hold up TNR as a beacon of criticism, either. In general, liberals have devoted enormous time to bemoaning the shortcomings of the Democratic legislative agenda. Indeed, if I had to summarize the liberal approach to analyzing these issues in three words, they would be bitch, bitch, bitch. It's gotten to the point where liberals are barely giving credit to Democrats for producing some major historic pieces of legislation. This isn't historically unusual -- go back and read old issues of TNR during the New Deal, and mostly you'll see a lot of complaining. But I do find the impression of blind support to be a bit bizarre.

I'd also note that the blog post Douthat replies to was mainly centered around pointing out that Douthat and Brooks are objectively wrong about the "doc fix" and the history of Medicare cuts, which I was hoping he'd acknowledge given the outsized role this episode plays in his interpretation of the health care bill.