Ross Douthat Wanks About Wonks

1 comment November 26th, 2009at 01:11pm Posted by Eli

Wow, that Ross sure does have an active imagination!  Yesterday he blogged about Lou Dobbs running for president as a “radical center populist”, and the day before that he tried to claim that conservatives aren’t really as anti-intellectual as all that, and might even vote for a thoughtful policy wonk.  No, really!

Matt Yglesias and Isaac Chotiner both suggest that if a Republican politician were to embrace serious domestic policy ideas, Republican voters wouldn’t want anything to do with him. The conservative movement tends to “fetishize stupidity,” Yglesias writes, and believes that there’s “something actually un-American about being thoughtful, having respect for scholarship, or incorporating any kind of nuance into your discussion.” If Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee “were interested in policy, then they would not be so appealing to the GOP base,” Chotiner argues, adding that since movement conservatism “sneers at intellectuals and elites,” a conservative candidate “who was interested in learning the ins and outs of the welfare state and health care policy is unlikely to ever achieve Palin/Huckabee levels of popularity with the grassroots.”

(So far, so good!)

I would really like to see this theory put to the test. Certainly there’s a strong anti-egghead bent on the Right, and you’re probably never going to see grassroots conservatives swooning for a purely cerebral candidate — a Adlai Stevenson or Bill Bradley type. But it’s possible for a candidate to have the common touch and to know a thing or two about domestic policy (see Clinton, William Jefferson), and I don’t see any evidence that a conservative politician couldn’t profit from trying to pull off that particular two-step.

Then he talks about how Palin (hahahaha) or Huckabee wouldn’t suffer politically if they boned up on policy, and about how popular Gingrich is because he has a reputation as a policy wonk even though Ross himself admits that he really isn’t one.  Which proves only that conservatives like ideologues who masquerade as policy wonks.

[P]recisely because the G.O.P. currently has a reputation for being anti-intellectual, there’s a huge upside for a Republican politician in being identified as that rarest of species — a “conservative with domestic policy ideas.” (For a small-bore example of how this works, look at Paul Ryan, who’s made a substantial name for himself by being one of the few House Republicans willing to get into the weeds on health care reform.) Of course identity politics and symbolic appeals will always matter more than substance, and political careers will never be made on wonkery alone. But even — or especially — in today’s Republican Party, being known as a thoughtful politician seems much more likely to help you than to hurt you.

Okay, some comments:

1) Interesting that Paul Ryan is the only Republican policy wonk Douthat mentions, and he’s not exactly a high-profile figure in the GOP.  Perhaps it’s because Republican policy wonks don’t get elected very often, much less obtain prominent GOP leadership positions?

2) Hey, can someone refresh my memory on what happens every time a conservative with some degree of intellectual honesty criticizes Dubya, or one of the GOP’s other heroes for being incompetent, immoral, or insane?  How does that work out for them?

3) How often do policy wonks of either party get elected?  Dukakis got crushed by a mediocrity, and Gore managed to lose to the dumbest man ever to run for president.  Clinton won despite his wonkery, not because of it.

4) Most people don’t like Republican policies, because they’re mean-spirited and prone to spectacular failure.  Republican candidates win by using emotional appeals and misinformation to camouflage those toxic policies, not illuminate them.

But hey, if they want to try it, I’m all for it.  In fact, I think the Republicans should keep on fielding wonky candidates until they start winning, that’s how committed I am to Ross’s genius idea.

Entry Filed under: Elections,Media,Politics,Republicans

1 Comment

  • 1. Clay Barham  |  November 27th, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    If all the Democrats in the Congress accept their party’s belief, as expressed by Hillary, Gov Vilsak and Obama, that community interests are more important than are individual interests, they will come together, even with a few like-believing Republicans, and pass Health Care as well as Cap and Tax and Card Check. Individual interests is philosophically without organized support. There are no spokesmen or women standing up for individual freedom, the resulting free market and America’s prosperity. There are only shades of elite few who want to rule the many, the “I’m OK, you’re not” kind of elite. The others are in fly-over country and despised by people like Martha Stewart and her elite.

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