June 3, 2012 · 4 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Today, three of the New York Times‘ op-ed columnists write about the presidential candidates. There’s quasi-liberal Maureen Dowd writing about Barack Obama. Then there’s fake centrist presidential adviser Tom Friedman advising Mitt Romney to go green. Finally, there’s true conservative Ross Douthat assessing Romney’s economic options. Let’s see who does the best job of enlightening us.
Dowd, who is preternaturally obsessed with the psyches of presidents, once again devotes her column to analyzing Barry. As Prologue to an Analysis, Dowd trashes Obama:
The president who started off with such dazzle now seems incapable of stimulating either the economy or the voters…. How the mighty have fallen…. The legendary speaker who drew campaign crowds in the tens of thousands and inspired a dispirited nation ended up nonchalantly delegating to a pork-happy Congress, disdaining the bully pulpit, neglecting to do any L.B.J.-style grunt work with Congress and the American public, and ceding control of his narrative…. The president had lofty dreams of playing the great convener and conciliator. But at a fund-raiser in Minneapolis, he admitted he’s just another combatant in a capital full of Hatfields and McCoys. No compromises, just nihilism.
What Dowd completely misses here is that Obama lost “the narrative” precisely because of his compromises. And he lost that narrative even before he was sworn in. He lost it with his Cabinet choices – choices meant to appease the right: Turbo-Tax Tim, “Wall Street’s ‘man in Washington’”; Eric Holder, corporate lawyer and fixer; Tom Daschle, healthcare lobbyist extraordinaire; Ken Salazar, big oil’s BFF. There is no dazzle there. These characters have been disastrous actors in a tragic Long Day’s Journey into Night. Once in office, Obama never went bold. From his early fold on closing Guantanamo, to his behind-closed-doors deal with Big Pharma, to his disinterest in putting teeth in Dodd-Frank, to the appointment of the Catfood Commission, to his “belt-tightening” deficit-reduction schemes, etc., etc., Obama started most projects from the center and moved right. He never intended to be the president his supporters hoped he would be. In addition, both Dowd and Obama seem to miss another obvious truism: you can’t compromise with rattlesnakes and snapping turtles. The President’s “lofty dreams of playing the great conciliator” were dependent upon his ability to snake-charm Eric Cantor and defang Mitch McConnell. Can’t be done.
If Dowd fails to understand the Barack Obama of today, it might be because she relies on the memories of people who knew Barry when they were too young or too tangential to his life to get any kind of useful grasp of his inchoate character: Genevieve Cook, Dowd writes, “thought Obama’s desire to ‘play out a superhero life’ was ‘a very strong archetype in his personality.’” Dowd also finds some meaning in young Barry’s attraction to Ernest Hemingway, a flawed character who tried to play a superhero all his life. Guess what? Playing out a superhero life is a very strong archetype of the personality of most young men, and men still think Hemingway was a “profound” writer. (I think he was an ass and not a very good writer.)
Speaking of writers who lack “profundity,” Dowd ends with this: “In some ways, he’s still finding himself, too absorbed to see what’s not working. But the White House is a very hard place to go on a vision quest, especially with a storm brewing.” That sounds like something Tom Friedman would write.
Which brings us to Tom Friedman, presidential adviser. Friedman is properly upset with Mitt Romney’s “slavish devotion to coal and oil.” To wean him away from this devotion, Friedman reminds Romney of the “the G.O.P.’s long tradition of environmental stewardship.” In that tradition, Friedman names the “proud legacies” of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Of course Friedman is right about Roosevelt. Nixon – largely as a political expediency in response to 20 million people demonstrating on Earth Day 1970 – did establish a series of environmental protections that Republicans have been trying to undermine ever since.
To cast Presidents Reagan and Bush as environmentalists is a bit like describing Attila the Hun as a pacifist because he once made a peace treaty with Theodosius II of Rome (there was a payoff to Attila). Reagan, who must have had the same science teacher as Michele Bachmann, thought “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” and his infamous EPA directors James Watt and Ann Gorsuch devoted themselves to rolling back environmental protections while opening up federal lands to mining and drilling. Continuing in the Reagan tradition, Dubya undid “decades if not a century of progress on the environment.” His administration “undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to,” said a spokesman for the Sierra Club. *
So, yes, expect a President Romney to continue that great G.O.P. tradition (not that President Obama has been a whole lot better).
Romney’s economic policies are Ross Douthat’s concern: “He needs to explain why, so soon after the Bush era, the country should trust his party to put things right again.” Douthat contrasts two books by “right-leaning” authors, one “by Edward Conard, a former managing director at (ahem) Bain Capital, who was profiled in The New York Times Magazine a month ago,” and the other by University of Chicago economics professor Luigi Zingales. Douthat is somewhat less than forthcoming about Conard’s book, which was widely panned/mocked (here, here and here, for instance) as was the Times Magazine cover profile by a fairly credulous Adam Davidson (here and here, for example). Douthat writes that
Conard’s book is an attack on much of the received wisdom about the crash of 2008. He argues that America’s pre-crisis economic gains were real rather than illusory. (‘The U.S. economy was on fire before the financial crisis,’ he writes.) He defends the growth of the financial sector and the bubble-era behavior of the major banks. And he argues that the crisis itself was less a comprehensive meltdown than a simple panic that tells us very little about the underlying soundness of the economic order.
Indeed, against the current antibailout mood, Conard suggests that we actually need stronger government guarantees for too-big-to-fail institutions, to encourage the kind of risk-taking that reaps long-term rewards. In a similar spirit, he defends the extraordinary wealth accrued by America’s richest 1 percent, arguing that such huge rewards are necessary to induce talented people to become entrepreneurs and investors rather than just white-collar time-servers.
By contrast, according to Douthat, Zingales writes that “what’s needed from conservatives are fewer uncritical defenses of big business and the rich, and more of a ‘free-market populism’ that would attack corruption and cartels in the private and public sector alike.”
What makes Douthat’s column interesting – and therefore more worthwhile than Dowd’s and Friedman’s – is that Douthat pins Romney to both Bush and Conard:
If Conard is right that the Bush-era economy was basically on a sound footing, then simply rolling back Obama-era interventions and forestalling tax increases on the investor class would probably restore our economic health. That points to a relatively conventional Republican policy vision, focused primarily on keeping marginal tax rates as low as possible….
Douthat does not bother to relate Romney’s actual prescription for “putting things right again,” but to a large degree, we know what that is: cut taxes of the rich, cut social safety net programs all around. That is, Romney’s policy matches Conard’s philosophy. As such, Douthat gives us a window into Romney’s self-justifying, Ayn Randian political and social philosophy, one he appears to share with Conard. Michael Kinsley describes Conard’s view,
The argument is basically [Adam] Smith’s, carried to extremes: The invisible hand of free-market capitalism turns individual greed into prosperity for all. But Conard also shares [Ayn] Rand’s special twist of portraying the successful businessman as a hero, the Alpha Male at his finest, and everybody else as mediocre deadbeats and leeches.
He says Warren Buffett should ‘quit taking a victory lap’ for saying that the rich should pay more taxes, because ‘that money is for the middle class.’ Conard means, believe it or not, that the middle class is better off paying more taxes so that people like Buffett can pay less and use their superior drive and brains to finance innovation that makes everybody richer.
Kinsley adds – and this is key – Conard’s argument justifying inequality is just a fleshed-out version of his former colleague Mitt Romney’s campaign stump speech about how he can save the country as a businessman.” Ironically, Kinsley notes, Conard is “the counterexample of his own theory.” After amassing hundreds of millions of dollars at Bain, Conard retired at age 51. “His rapid accumulation of huge wealth … did not cause him to buckle down and work even harder. It caused him to retire and follow pursuits more satisfying to him than making more money,” Kinsley writes. The same, of course, is true of Romney. Although Romney has a sweet deal that allows him to continue to rake off a portion of Bain’s profits, Romney hasn’t had “a real job” in business since he left Bain in 1999 to follow more satisfying pursuits when he was 51.
There is, as far as I can tell, little daylight between Romney and Conard. We are indebted to Douthat for reminding us of that.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
* Update: Oops! See comments below.