A New Way to Play the Health Care Blame Game

The NYT's Ross Douthat defends President Obama

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Just a few days after The Atlantic Wire covered Paul Krugman's rallying call for progressives frustrated with President Obama, a counterargument has emerged from a most unlikely corner. On Sunday, Ross Douthat, a recent conservative addition to the New York Times columnist team, published an opposing viewpoint that looks very much like a purposeful response to the Krugman column. At the very least, it is a forceful rejoinder to recent left-wing complaints of Obama's failure and betrayal.

"Don't Blame Obama," Douthat wrote, arguing Democrats theoretically have all the tools they need to make health-care work, even without the president:

If the Congressional Democrats can't get a health care package through, it won't prove that President Obama is a sellout or an incompetent. It will prove that Congress's liberal leaders are lousy taticians, and that its central deal-makers first, poll watchers second and loyal Democrats a distant third. And it will prove that the Democratic Party is institutionally incapable of delivering on its most significant promises.

Douthat began his column with a summary of the campaign fixations of the left-wing and  the media. Krugman had noted that it was precisely the progressive base "which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and payed a major role in his general election victory" that was now rebelling. "The left," as Douthat rephrased, "doubts President Obama's commitment, and the press doubts his competence." Krugman, one hardly needs to note, hails from both groups. He had attacked both what Douthat called both Obama's "betrayal" and his "ham-fistedness," criticisms Douthat identified as coming from the left and the media, respectively.

Obama's deliberate use of the "quasi-messianic expectations" of him, Douthat continued, "doesn't make them any less unrealistic." Nor did he apparently buy Krugman's assertion that "there's a point at which realism shades over into weakness," and that Obama's concessions to Republicans, his willingness to "appease people who can't be appeased," was to blame for health care reform woes. "To listen to the chatter about where [Obama's] administration has gone wrong, you would think that the rest of the Democratic Party had no agency," Douthat countered. Calling the current struggle "less a test of Mr. Obama's political genius than [...] a test of the Democratic Party's ability to govern," Douthat went even further:

Fox News and Sarah Palin have soapboxes, but they don't have veto power. Mr. Obama could be a cipher, a nonentity, a Millard Fillmore or a Franklin Pierce, and his party would still have the power to pass sweeping legislation without a single Republican vote.

So what does this mean for Obama and the progressive revolt? Thus far it is unclear. Ross Douthat argued forcefully for a redistribution of blame, at least regarding health-care reform: if a health care package does not pass, "President Obama will have been defeated. But it's the party, not the president, that will have failed."

Political failure, however, can come in many forms. Peter Wehner of the National Review may already have summed up the matter in his Friday morning musings: "Whatever one thinks of Paul Krugman--and I think his columns are often risible and dyspeptic--among the Left, he's quite influential. And so his column [...] is very bad news for the Obama administration." So can the conservative Ross Douthat's rising star counter the liberal cult of Paul Krugman? If so, that may be news of its own.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.