Pundits, Part I

There was a time when I really enjoyed reading George F. Will. His regular Newsweek columns challenged me to think more deeply about my political views. Though we don’t generally share a perspective, he sometimes convinced me of his position. In many ways, he seemed to be the model of the politically engaged intellectual. This background just added to my disappointment in reading his latest column.

Basically, Will argues that achieving major conservative objectives isn’t enough if it might benefit Pres. Obama politically. In the process, he acts as though Obama has had all power in the past (with 100% responsibility for the poor economic recovery and the final health care bill) while the conservatives have had almost none (“one-half of one of the two political branches” is Will’s way of eliding conservative strength in the judiciary). He’s willing to look back as far as Barry Goldwater but unwilling to recognize how many supposed heirs of Reagan helped build this deficit in the first place. He thus absolves Republicans of responsibility for the mess they’re now clamoring to correct.

Will praises the congressional committee in McConnell’s plan for not having administration members. But the structure is actually terribly undemocratic: an equal number of members from each party, even though (to apply Will’s own formulation to his argument) the Republicans are currently “one-half of one of the two political branches.” And the committee’s power would be extraordinary. With a simple majority it would be able to compel both chambers to take an up or down vote (no filibuster, not amendments) on it’s budget plan. That’s not protecting congressional prerogatives; it’s a recipe for either gridlock or railroading.

Will portrays all of the president’s motives as nefarious. For example, he suggests that tax increases are meant to fracture Republican unity, not because Obama believes increased revenue is necessary. Through he praises the Tea Party as “the most welcome political development since the Goldwater insurgency,” he paints Obama’s response to increased demands for debt reduction as a cheap political ploy, an attempt “to run away from his record.” In Will’s view, there’s no room for a Democratic president to respond positively to political developments. Having been the enemy, Obama will apparently ever remain so.

Will actually closes his column with plenty of points the president has embraced. Obama agrees that “ever-bigger government financed by an ever-smaller tax base” is unsustainable. That’s why he’s calling for cuts to spending AND tax expenditures. Obama’s been convinced that shrinking entitlement spending and government payrolls will both be necessary in order to achieve sustainability. But in Will’s worldview, there’s absolutely no way for the president to show he’s serious about such beliefs. When we understand our opponents only as enemies, we’ll interpret every friendly overture as an act of war. It’s sad that Will has fallen into that line of thinking. In doing so, he’s joined the people who were always to the right of Goldwater.

One Response to Pundits, Part I
  1. kaahl
    August 3, 2011 | 6:07 am

    Reading a journalist’s view of politicians is a bit like Inception–you never quite know what level you are on. Does the journalist truly believe what he is writing, or is he swayed at the margin by page views, compensation, and prestige? Even if he really believes what he is writing, is he accurately assessing what and why the politicians are doing what they are doing? Are the politicians looking to support codified principles? Are they swayed at the margin by looming elections, fund-raising, and their own ego? I don’t mean to just throw up my hands, but I tend to think that people will operate at all of those levels simultaneously, and sometimes even deceive themselves on why they are really doing things.