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George Will's Strangely Selective Pedantry

[Guest post by James Downie]

Gather round, everyone! George Will has a history lesson for us!

Last month, Barack Obama was asked by an interviewer from Texas why he is so unpopular there. Obama replied: “Texas has always been a pretty Republican state, for, you know, historic reasons.” Well, yes, “always” — if you believe, as many baby boomers seem to, that the world began when they became more or less sentient. But, for the record:
Texas, one of the 11 states of the Confederacy, was, for historic reasons, part of the solidly Democratic South for almost a century after the Civil War. Deeply Protestant Texas voted for Republican Herbert Hoover against Al Smith, a Catholic New Yorker, for president in 1928, but it did not vote for a Republican presidential candidate again until Dwight Eisenhower carried the state in 1952 and 1956. It did not do so again until it picked Richard Nixon in 1972. Four years later, it embraced Jimmy Carter. Other than during Reconstruction, Texas did not elect a Republican senator until 1961 (John Tower) and did not elect a second one (Phil Gramm) until 1984, and there were not as many as three Texas Republicans in the U.S. House until 1968. Republicans were not a majority of the state’s congressional delegation until 2005.
Responding to Ryan’s budget proposal, Obama said it “would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known certainly in my lifetime. In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.”
Well. It is unclear what “fundamentally” means to Obama, but consider some possible metrics of what is, and is not, different than what we have known “throughout our history.” Ryan’s plan would reduce federal spending as a percentage of GDP from the 2009-11 average of 24.4 to 19.9 in 10 years. It was not until the nation was 158 years old — in the Depression year of 1934, with the New Deal erupting — that peacetime federal spending topped 10 percent of GDP, and it did not reach 12 percent until the war preparations of 1941.

As George Will himself might say, what pedantic punditry. Will knows very well that, had Obama been reading prepared remarks rather than sitting for an interview, he would have worded the first statement more precisely, and he also knows that reasonable people can disagree on whether Obama's second statement is correct, because the truth of his statement depends on interpreting historical fact, not the facts themselves. (If we're looking at "some possible metrics" that Will chose not to include, though, Ryan's plan will increase income inequality, which has already reached record highs. Ryan's plan will increase health care costs for seniors, which, again, are at their highest ever. You get the idea.)

More telling is what Will leaves out. In his rebuttal of Obama's claim that Texas has "always" been a Republican state, he never mentions the role the racist "Southern Strategy" played in Texas's switch from blue to red. (A fact that even the Republican Party no longer contests.) At this point, it would be perfectly reasonable for someone to jump in and say, "Now you're the pedant, James. Sure, Will had the chance to write down and edit his thoughts, but he probably left that out because of space limitations." Yet somehow Will found room in the column to mention the role of religious prejudice when "deeply Protestant Texas voted for Republican Herbert Hoover against Al Smith, a Catholic New Yorker," but could not find room to provide similarly brief background about the Southern Strategy. Contrary to their self-cast roles as guardians of America's past, the role of racial exploitation in the GOP's success remains a history lesson many conservatives (especially those of Will's generation) prefer to forget.