A Brief Response to Ross Douthat

New York Times columnist/ex-colleague/current friend Ross Douthat makes the following observation:

So if Ambinder wanted to argue that the most prominent right-wing criticisms of this White House have sometimes been cynical and less-than-persuasive, I'd say fair enough. (Tellingly, that's where his follow-up post ends up going, via a critique of Newt Gingrich.) But in the post quoted above, he's talking about the world of columnists and bloggers as well as talking heads, and here I will happily pit any roster of "trenchant" liberals that Ambinder wants to draw up, from Klein and Cohn on down, against the work of Manzi, Tyler Cowen, Reihan Salam, Ramesh Ponnuru, Tim Carney, James Capretta, David Frum, Yuval Levin, Arnold Kling, Will Wilkinson, Nicole Gelinas, Stephen Spruiell and (ahem!) Ambinder's own Atlantic colleague Megan McArdle. And that's just a top-of-my-head reading list ...

Actually, I'm arguing something slightly different than what Douthat has me arguing and/or wants me to argue: I'm saying that the party itself prizes the untethered voices. The elite media may, or may not be party to the decisions to cover the loudest, most repeated voices, but who can blame them? Manzi, McArdle, Carney, Ponnuru, Frum and the rest often offer very salient criticism, but it is not the type of criticism that is valued within their party, and it almost never rises above the din.

To repeat myself, the incentive structure favors illogical and often ridiculous arguments and rhetoric. There are plenty of silly voices in the Democratic Party, but the party's incentive structure right now provides an unprecedented opportunity for activists with a cause to make their arguments heard and see their arguments change the way that the party's leaders act. Yes, the Democrats are the party in power, but there's no reason why Ross's roster of conservatives can't be the go-to thinkers for 2012 candidates, Tea Party leaders, and top members of Congress. They aren't.

When I say that Keith Olbermann was effective in changing (elite) minds on health care, I mean it: his show, whatever else you think about it, helped to keep the public option debate alive (he lost that one) and helped to keep the reconciliation possibility open (he won that one). It worked; it was effective. The White House listened; Democrats listened; policy was changed. What follows from this observation is that the LEFT is keeping the Obama administration on its toes.

My media diet consists of reading as many if not more conservative thinkers than even Ross (!), but if no one in their own party's leadership structure values their ideas, if their presidential candidates constantly shrink from the responsibility to lead, if reactionary forces -- the forces of unreality -- continue to triumph, it's not my fault that James Capretta isn't on the phone daily with Republican leaders.

My definition of trenchant, by the way, is the traditional one: keen + effective.