Ross Douthat and Tyler Cowen on Lieberman, Palin, and Outlawing Abortion

If you look really closely, you can see Ross Douthat. Photo: Getty Images

Every day until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. For today’s conversation, we bring together Ross Douthat, a senior editor at The Atlantic and author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, and Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University who blogs at MarginalRevolution.com. His latest book is Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. Cowen will return tomorrow.

T.C: I'd like to start by announcing that my positive or negative remarks about political figures should not be construed as support or lack thereof!

R.D.: I'd like to start by expressing my long-running admiration, which has extended into this campaign season, for your ability to blog about contemporary affairs while keeping an impressively cool head!

T.C: I watched some of the convention last night — my wife turned it on — and I thought it came across as moribund. Bush smirked and Thompson and Lieberman looked like uninspired ghouls, frankly. People can say what they will about Palin, but one reason Republicans are embracing her is simply because of the quality of the competition.

R.D.: Well, I aspire to your level of cool-headedness, but I haven't blogged much in the past couple of days because I'm having a difficult time keeping my cool — and separating my cultural instincts from my political analysis. But the convention last night — which I, too, watched on TV, though I'm here in St. Paul — did have a cooling effect on my increasingly rabid partisanship, by virtue of being just as moribund as you suggested.

It should have been remarkable, stunning even, to watch the '00 Democratic nominee for vice-president endorse the GOP nominee … but all I could feel, watching Lieberman, was nostalgia for Zell Miller's '04 barn burner. Not because I admired all of the sentiments he expressed, mind you, but because first and foremost an event like this needs some entertainment value, and that was sadly absent last night.

T.C: I think Lieberman simply has to be assuming that a Democratic Party which offers him low status needs significant reform.

Now, Palin: The critics are completely correct to suggest that McCain has been a poor decision-maker and that we should not be excited about the Republican ticket. But the point remains that the attacks on his running mate have reached a level of ugliness I never had expected. It is interesting to speculate about some of the motivations. Many points about competence and experience are well taken, but that doesn't account for the tone, severity, or nature of many of the attacks.

R.D.: I think several things are going on with Palin. I think the argument that the media tends toward sexism can be overstated, but there's definitely a touch of sexism in the Palin coverage — as I think there was with Hillary. (Though I also think that it's a mistake for the GOP to complain about it, as it was a mistake for Hillary to do so.)

T.C: Fertility is always a controversial issue. And here's a family that just seems to be bursting with it, comfortable with it, and rejecting many of the mores and norms of liberal democratic America. Suddenly that family has been elevated to very high status. And the attacks start.

R.D.: I also think there's an insider bias to the press — the notion that someone they've never even heard of could be nominated for the vice-presidency is inherently offensive to a culture where the host of Meet the Press is treated to near–state funeral.

Palin crosses the mommy wars with the culture wars like no politician before her…

T.C: There is also the notion that the Kennedy School of Government does not and never will rule America and that America can revoke an electoral victory for the Democrats "at will." Sarah Palin is a populist of the right, and that scares a lot of people. I differ from her myself on many fundamental views, but I will confess that I am enjoying seeing her upend so many presuppositions of her critics.

I tell you, I watched a big chunk of that debate she had when she ran for governor of Alaska a few years ago. She crushed her opponent. If she can survive the next few days, she will prove a very formidable opponent for the Democrats. They are torn between realizing that and not wanting to admit it, by painting her as a lightweight. She isn't.

Everyone is harping on the experience issue. The biggest question is how good a decision-maker you are and how "meta-rational" you are, namely having the ability to recognize your own imperfections. I don't know how she does on those counts, but those are the more honest questions, not whether she can name or understand all the different factions in Afghanistan. No one can.

R.D.: Like you, I think that the experience qua experience argument is overblown. It's clearly a political problem for the McCain camp, since it contradicts their "experience first" message, but their attempts to cast her as having foreign-policy experience (Alaska national guard, etc.) are just laughable.

T.C: Yes, they need to stop with that Alaska line. It is just inviting press questions which cannot really be answered.

R.D.: Their emphasis should be along that she has the record of a good decision-maker (which she does in some cases, less so in others, so far as I can tell), and that she'll apply those abilities to international affairs the way she's applied them to Alaska politics. And then she just has to run circles around Joe Biden, which I suspect she's capable of…

T.C: Biden is very stiff and often lacks a sense of the audience. In her gubernatorial debate I was amazed how often she knew when to restate the question in terms she was familiar with or wanted to answer. She had a remarkable sense of when to use positive or negative words and at which times. I was very impressed by her debating skills.

R.D.: I wonder what you think of her libertarian credentials? It's hard to get an exact read on where she's stood on a lot of issues, but her candidacy has been greeted with more interest from online libertarians than you'd expect from an evangelical pro-lifer, I think…

T.C: I doubt if she is very libertarian. I think of her as a populist with libertarian tendencies but really not a libertarian. I'm sure you heard about her trying to censor books at the local public library. Again, there is a lot here I am not comfortable with. I wonder about her attachment to moderation, most of all. For me that is a bigger question than experience per se. But she is also a breath of fresh air in a party which is falling apart.

I think Obama genuinely has the virtue of moderation, and I find that reassuring. I don't see that McCain does. Biden I couldn't say.

R.D.: I would say that Obama has the virtue of caution, rather than moderation — I think his political choices, in Chicago and now on the national stage, have been shaped by play-it-safe instincts. In Chicago, playing it safe meant being pretty far left; on the national stage, it means being a centrist. I sympathize with the conservative suspicion that he's something of a radical in his heart of hearts — no intelligent person could attend Jeremiah Wright's church without having some instincts in that direction — but I'm hopeful that his innate caution will be a brake on those tendencies.

As someone who thinks the GOP needs to be shaken up, I've been pulling for all the outsiders in Republican politics this year; I wanted Mike Huckabee AND Ron Paul to succeed, contradictory as that sounds. And I'm sure that shaped my desire to see Palin on the ticket. But it's one thing to root for a shake-up artist in the primary; it's another to root for one who might ascend, upon John McCain's death, to the presidency.

T.C: McCain I think sees everything as a moral issue, and that worries me. I worry very much that he would attack Iran … If I can press you for a moment, why stay being a Republican, given the mess over there? Why not just be an independent? The Democratic convention, I should add, depressed me quite a bit. Unlike day one for the Republicans, I thought it was a "good show." But if you look at the kinds of appeals in Hillary's speech, well … I can only turn over the mike to your colleague Andrew Sullivan on that one.

R.D.: I suppose I generally think of myself as a conservative much more than as a Republican … but when you write a book about what a specific party should do, as Reihan and I just did, you tend to find yourself identifying more with that party than usual. I think I'm at the phase of my life where I'm young and naïve enough to think that I can have an influence on national politics. I think the GOP is a more plausible vehicle for my ideas than the Democrats, and so I'm doing my damndest to influence them. Come back to me in twenty years, and I'll probably be older, wiser, and self-identifying as a conservative independent.

T.C: I do think you can have influence, but not through parties per se. I view the voters as the fundamental problem, and the parties are forced by competitive pressures to respond. The argument for you staying a Republican is simply that the party right now doesn't have many other good thinkers. That will mean more attention for your ideas. I'm not suggesting you view it so cynically, but still it is true.

R.D.: Well, you flatter me! But yeah, I'm sure there's a subconscious pull, when you're a young writer interested in politics, to a party's that in trouble, and therefore receptive to your (sometimes harebrained) notions…

If Roe vs. Wade weren't on the books, too, I think I would be much more likely to swing back and forth between the parties. But returning abortion law to the democratic process (I don't have any illusions that pro-lifers can accomplish more than that in the short run) is such an overriding priority for me that it tends to keep me tethered to the GOP.

T.C: I also think, though, cynically, that the GOP knows that "delivering" on the abortion issue would spell their doom and thus they won't ever do it.

R.D.: I don't agree, actually. It depends what you mean by "deliver." Will the national GOP push for a nationwide abortion ban in my lifetime? Doubtful. Could a Supreme Court with conservative appointees overturn Roe and Casey? Sure. It would have in 1992, if Anthony Kennedy hadn't changed his mind. And I'm pretty persuaded that both Alito and Roberts, if it came to it, would vote to overturn Roe.

T.C: I agree on Alito and Roe, but running referenda on abortion and the like would very badly hurt the national profile of the Republicans. Maybe it's hard for the party to step back from the tipping point, but I think they prefer the status quo to reform in the direction you outline.

R.D.: Well, we'll see what kind of judges a McCain-Palin administration appoints!

T.C: I believe so … I'll just add one thing: This election will have more interesting sociology than probably either of us had expected. Let's hope that America as a nation comes out of it okay. Your final words?

R.D.: Just that it's been a pleasure chatting with you, and I look forward to hearing what you think about tonight's speech. I've got my fingers crossed!

Earlier: Defending Sarah Palin: Ross Douthat and Jonah Goldberg on McCain's V.P. Pick as Culture-War Hand Grenade