the national interest

I Have Mocked Ross Douthat One Time Too Many

The life of a blogger.

I have spent years gently mocking Ross Douthat, who is actually one of my favorite opinion writers, for his fatal flaw of detecting signs of ideological moderation in a succession of Republican figures like Sarah Palin, Eric Cantor, Tim Pawlenty, and others. Now he has finally snapped. After my latest provocation, Douthat replies with a double-barreled post angrily accusing me of cherry-picking his posts. For good measure, Douthat also accuses me of committing the same crime against Reason’s Peter Suderman, about whom I wrote earlier this month. I’ll address both, beginning with Suderman.

My post about Suderman, who writes about Obamacare for Reason, charged him with writing a series of negative stories about Obamacare’s coverage that conveyed an overall tone of failure, while consistently retreating in unstated ways. So, Suderman began the year by questioning whether Obamacare would reduce the number of uninsured Americans, and ended by questioning whether it had reduced the number of uninsured by 20 million. “While some of his points have validity,” I wrote, “it’s fair to say that the broader narrative conveyed by his work, which certainly lies on the sophisticated end of the anti-Obamacare industry, has utterly failed to prepare his libertarian readers for the possibility that the hated health-care law will actually work more or less as intended.

My piece, which included a link to Suderman’s author page, invited readers to peruse his entire body of work, which I only skimmed (as I noted, it is prolific).

Suderman offers his own response, pointing out that my chronology of his coverage of Obamacare missed several points. One of them contains a (pretty) clear admission of failure that I should have cited. In May, Suderman conceded that his previous suggestion that Obamacare would fail to decrease the ranks of the uninsured at all was “pretty clearly not what happened,” which is quite an understatement, but a mea culpa all the same. The rest of the pieces I missed were merely continuations of the pattern I identified. Two of them have headlines —  “Obamacare Sees Last Minute Sign-Up Surge, But How Many Enrollees Were Previously Uninsured?”; “Obamacare Sign Ups Hit 8 Million; Demographic Mix Falls Short Of Target” — that do convey their tone of implicitly abandoning a previous doom prediction and immediately moving on to a new one. The third, “Obama Takes Obamacare Victory Lap,” straightforwardly describes Obama crowing about sign-up numbers without reckoning with Suderman’s or other right-wing analysts’ deep record of skepticism. While I should have found and quoted his post admitting a previous prediction had failed, I think my overall evaluation of his coverage was apt. His posts, while often (as I conceded) accurate at the micro level, conveyed a tone of almost continuous doomsaying about a law that — whatever his philosophical objection to its goals — was steadily progressing toward fulfilling them.

Douthat proceeds to argue that I have cherry-picked his own quotes, this time about Mitt Romney and 2012. My piece notes that Douthat praises Ryan for his moderation, while dismissing the 2012 GOP ticket as hopelessly plutocratic, yet he defended Romney and Ryan against exactly this charge at the time. Douthat points out that he also devoted numerous items to complaining about Romney’s upper-class tilt. And yeah, he certainly did. I did not write, and did not mean to imply, that Douthat only defended Romney against the charge of upward redistribution. But I focused on those episodes for two reasons. One is that they were clear in my mind because those were the things I argued about with Douthat — me insisting Romney’s plan cut taxes for the rich; he insisting it did not.

The second reason I did so is that the situations are fairly analogous. Ryan now, like Romney-Ryan then, is making a series of irreconcilable promises. Douthat is treating the more mainstream version of those premises as binding, and the more extreme promises as null and void.

Anyway, I find Douthat’s latest post to be a wild, angry overreaction. What he calls “cherry-picking,” I call “condensing.” But a less patient person would have lashed out years ago at my endless provocations. The impressive thing is that he held off this long.