My Friday column weighing in on the issue of epistemic closure on the right, and the flight of conservatives from empirical reality, has provoked fast, angry, and often personal rebukes. So far, the misreadings are legion. Of course there are Republicans with good ideas and conservative leaders with reasonable positions on public policy. But with increasing frequency, even well pedigreed Republican intellectuals such as Newt Gingrich stoop to unhinged rhetoric, either because they fear being marginalized by the base, or specifically because they're trying to curry favor in anticipation of a presidential run. Gingrich's apologetics are particularly powerful, because he lends legitimacy to charges that are, on their face, illegitimate.Take his response to an April 14 Norm Ornstein op-ed in the Washington Post. Ornstein was befuddled by the notion that anyone with a sense of history could possibly call the collective actions of the Obama administration "socialist." Gingrich's op-ed on April 22 set out to make the case that the adjective is appropriate -- as, he says, are other adjectives, such as "machine" in relation to the type of politics practiced by the White House, and "secular" as a way of describing what Gingrich sees as a pervasive attitude among Obama and his elite pals.
It was precisely my effort to place the Obama-Pelosi-Reid team in some historic context that led me to conclude that this is, indeed, a secular-socialist machine. While clarity may make some uncomfortable, such language is appropriate in explaining a movement of big government, high taxes, big bureaucracy, massive deficits and huge debt run from a politician-centric system of power.
Let's take some of the charges one-by-one.
"Machine": Getting $787 billion from Congress in February when no elected member had fully read and understood the economic stimulus package. This is behavior worthy of the Chicago political machine
Call this a boondoggle or decry Keysenian economics, but this has nothing to do with machine-style politics: indeed, if you'll recall, the White House almost didn't get the stimulus package through Congress because it wasn't aggressive enough in responding to Republican charges that Democrats were making a down payment on their spending wish list. Point two: the bill contained hundreds of billions of dollars worth of tax cuts. Point three: many Republicans have danced a little jig, grateful for the spending within their own districts. Point four: the real debate, as Gingrich knows full well, was not whether a lot of money should be injected into the economy, but how. Point four: how many times during Gingrich's tenure as Speaker of the House did Republicans employ procedural tricks? Yet no one referred to an "Atlanta political machine" style of politics. The word "machine" simply doesn't apply here.
"Machine": Rejecting the will of the American people expressed through town hall meetings, tea parties, polls and elections by ramming through an unpopular 2,600-page health-care bill.
The context itself rebuts this use of the adjective. First: the centerpiece of the bill -- health exchanges -- has a Republican intellectual pedigree. Second: Obama proposed this version of health care reform during the campaign. It was placed into the Democratic platform. Obama and Democrats won the election. The specific major planks of health care remain popular, as does the idea itself, when divorced from the way in which the process played out. That was an ugly process, and it's legitimate to blame Democrats and the White House for their role in it. But it was, just the same, much uglier than it could have been, precisely because Republicans took to a scorched earth strategy at hinge points in the debate -- as when congressional leaders such as Sen. Chuck Grassley embraced the rhetoric of "death panels." Also, it's worth reminding the historian that we live in a constitutional republic, not a pure democracy. "Rejecting the will of the American people" can also be seen as an assumption of duty by elected officials -- even if you disagree with what they ultimately did. No machine politics here, just regular politics. (NB: if the Obama "machine" was so powerful, how come it couldn't figure out how to handle the Illinois Senate race?)
Interlude: which party introduced and passed an extremely complicated, extremely expensive Medicare prescription drug bill in the dead of night -- via a process that lasted three hours? Not the Democrats.
"Socialist": Creating czar positions to micromanage industry reflects the type of hubris of centralized government that Friedrich von Hayek and George Orwell warned against.
This one is easy. The czars were misnamed by some cheeky White House official early on, and the appellation does not refer to the power of these positions. In fact, it's more accurate to refer to them as program managers. They don't have nearly the authority that Gingrich implies.
Proposing that the government (through the Environmental Protection Agency or some sort of carbon-trading scheme) micromanage carbon output is proposing that the government be able to control the entire U.S. economy.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA can regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. Global warming is an existential problem. So Congress (an elected body responsive to the will of the people) can do something, or the EPA (an executive branch agency not accountable to anyone) can. Take your pick. NB: is cap-and-trade a good policy? That's a reasonable debate to have. But peremptorily declaring congressional action on energy policy to be socialist is not reasonable.
"Socialist": Expanding government mortgage intervention to 90 percent of the housing market.
Again, context: the housing market was on the verge of collapse. Without the government's involvement, no one would be able to get a mortgage right now. The administration is trying to figure out how to re-priviatize the industry without (a) risking a total collapse of the market again and (b) some new rules in place to protect consumers. Who bailed out Fannie and Freddie? Not the Obama White House.
Secular: Describing America's promise as a "secular country that is respectful of religious freedom," as Obama did last April, is an act of willful historical revisionism.
So is Gingrich's misquote. The country evolved over 200 years into a secular democracy that contains multitudes of highly religious people, whose beliefs and practices are significant aspects of its political culture.
There are a few more charges in the piece. Read them and you'll see the same category of error.