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Daily Deadline: Brothers in Arms

[with contributions from Matt O’Brien and Darius Tahir]

Now that I’m finally done with that feature article, which you’ll be able to read here next week, I want to circle back to a few items I put aside because I was busy reporting. One of them is Ezra Klein’s article on the Obama Administration’s economic policy failures, real and imagined. Actually, it’s a pair of articles. One was a lengthy, stand-alone piece in the Washington Post. The other was a review of Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men. That article ran in the New York Review of Books.

If you’re the typical visitor to this blog, you’ve probably read one or both of these already. I won’t attempt to summarize them, except to say that both put forward a fairly nuanced assessment – namely, that the administration made some key mistakes, particularly when it came to housing policy and staffing the Federal Reserve, but that the challenges were also bigger, and more complicated, than critics from either side generally assume. The political obstacles, in particular, were huge. That all rings true to me.

One of the best commentaries on the Obama Administration I’ve ever heard came from Neera Tanden, shortly after she had left the Department of Health and Human Services to join the Center for American Progress in 2010. “People like to second-guess, but, at the time, with the information we had, almost every controversial decision was a series of hard calls – fifty-five percent to forty-five percent at best.” Tanden was speaking specifically of the health care fight. But the quote surely applies to many other decisions that Obama has made since early 2009.

If I could rerun history, I’d probably be screaming more loudly for Obama to challenge the filibuster. Ezra is skeptical that this would have worked. I think it had a decent chance – particularly if, simultaneously, Obama had made the case that the economy was in a state of crisis, requiring fast and emergency remedy. But I can’t be sure that would have worked, even now. It’s a very close call.

One other point I wanted to make was more about journalism than policy. For as long as I’ve been working in this business, our most detailed understanding of politics has come from insider accounts that focus on personalities rather than the issues. Sometimes these accounts are superb and enrich our understanding of what’s actually happening in Washington. Bob Woodward, at his best, has always done this. We need this kind of reporting.

But sometimes the big story in politics isn’t the people. It’s the substance. We need that kind of reporting, too -- and we don't always get it. Ezra makes this point in his review of Suskind:

the weakness of Suskind’s book, which is also a weakness that afflicts much punditry about the presidency [is that] it is very surefooted in its reporting on personalities and the process by which decisions were made, and very vague when it comes to assessing the policy that was under consideration and judging whether the final approach performed better or worse than the alternative proposals. 

I haven't read Suskind's book, still, so I'm in no position to judge. But the broad diagnosis seems right to me -- and, thankfully, there are signs that punditry may finally be starting to change. The Post now has a team of talented policy bloggers, including a few who got their start at TNR, whose work Washington reads closely. Even more tellingly, the new Washington bureau chief for the New York Times is David Leonhardt, who writes on economics and last year won a Pulitzer for it. Outside the big media institutions, the class of influential writers include people like Marcy Wheeler on the left and Philip Klein on the right, both of whom focus heavily on substance, even when they’re writing about politics.

I may have an exaggerated sense of their impact on the debate because they are the writers I read the most. And even if I’m correct that a shift is taking place, I’m not sure how long-lasting it will be. The coming presidential campaign, in which the policy stakes are huge, will be a crucial test. But for the moment, Washington journalism seems a lot more informative than it did a few years ago. I’m grateful.


The case for castration. My former colleague Michelle Cottle makes the case in the Daily Beast.

More on Multiple Choice Mitt: Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect explains why Romney’s shifting positions on the issues ought to matter – a lot.

This is how you celebrate Veteran’s Day? Mitt Romney thinks he can improve health care for veterans by giving them vouchers. Steve Benen and Joan McCarter remind us that veterans probably get the “best care anywhere,” as Philip Longman has famously described it, because they use what happens to be the truest of government-run health care in the country.

Graph of the day: From Suzy Khimm at the Post, the graph shows the number of Americans who say they can afford food for their families. It’s not a good trend.

Crime doesn’t pay. Or, to be more precise, it doesn’t pay like it used to pay, at least when the crime is selling cocaine. And that may be why violent crime has been falling, although use of other drugs (like meth) is rising. Llewellyn Hinkes-Jones has the story at The Atlantic Cities.

The William Buckley reader: Carl Bogus reads the conservative canon and writes about it for National Review.

Different doctors, not more doctors. That’s what we need, according to Merrill Goozner, via Gooznews and the Health Care Blog.

Video Dedication of the Day: For the members of our armed forces, past and present, on this Veteran’s Day: Thank you.