Peggy Noonan’s column today heralding President Obama’s imminent political death is one of the more garbled, disjointed, and confused documents I’ve seen in a long while.
The president, in my view, continues to govern in a way that suggests he is chronically detached from the central and immediate concerns of his countrymen.
Ok. What are those central and immediate concerns? Noonan lists three. First:
The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic.
Have they really? Who exactly would describe the scenario in which high government spending leads to the undoing of the republic—in the end—as a central and immediate concern in their lives? In the midst of a historic recession and ten percent unemployment, it is simply insane to think that "the American people" wake up each morning, send their kids off to school, and then spend the day brooding about the federal debt-to-GDP ratio. Maybe Noonan and her friends do. But then again, Noonan and her friends—dare I venture a guess—are not among the millions of people receiving unemployment benefits or whose homes have been foreclosed upon.
And has it only been two years that we have been living with the danger of the undoing of the republic due to high spending? I am sick of having to post this graph but Noonan could at least mention the role of the previous administration in causing the dystopic nightmare that she bizarrely thinks is imminent:
She then laments the president’s "day-to-day indifference to the views and hopes of the majority of voters regarding illegal immigration."
First of all, does Noonan really think that the only thing preventing the passage of comprehensive immigration reform is President Obama’s "indifference" to the issue? She already hit him for the "tearing and unnecessary war" over health care reform, as if Republicans had nothing whatever to do with that. And for whom was health care reform "unnecessary"? Again, certainly not for the 30 million Americans who have no health insurance. How about for Noonan and the denizens of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page?
So when the president fights and battles his way to a historic legislative victory on a policy Noonan doesn’t like, the process is "tearing and unnecessary." But when Republican intransigence makes something impossible which Noonan does like, it’s because of the president’s "indifference." Her arguments read like campaign theme primers.
And again, I simply can’t believe that Noonan really thinks that the story of the last two years is that of the American people singularly devoted to their concerns about the national debt and immigration. These are deeply complicated and abstract policy problems, and by definition they are neither "immediate" nor "central" to most actual human beings in this country. And on immigration she might have mentioned the evolving views of embattled demagogic Republican primary candidates such as John "Complete the Danged Fence" McCain. But no, it can’t possibly be partisan hackery that is to blame, just Obama’s "indifference".
Noonan then launches into her political analysis of the oil spill, and it’s very difficult to pinpoint her argument because she makes several contradictory ones.
In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language—"catastrophe," etc.—but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won’t see the big picture.
First she criticizes the president for not dealing with our immediate and central concerns, and then she criticizes him for having factual command of the issue and for not stepping back and appreciating the "big picture." Which is it? Is he too aloof from immediate concerns, or not aloof enough? Or is the skeptic of big government paternalism really just looking for a president to bite his lower lip and tell us that everything’s gonna be ok?
Noonan goes on to describe the oil spill as indicative of the bankruptcy of the president’s political philosophy:
His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: "Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust." Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable.
Is she saying that if only the government didn’t concern itself with petty problems of need, injustice, and inequality, it would have a better technological command of how to cap gushing deep water oil rigs? As Kevin Drum notes, expertise in repairing oil blowouts is not something we have ever expected of the federal government. Noonan surely knows that in America the government does not drill for oil; it merely regulates those who do. Perhaps it would be helpful if she took a look back at the regulatory record of the previous administration.
Noonan simultaneously blames the president for not fixing the oil spill, not having a plan to fix it, having too many facts about how to fix it, not seeing the big picture, not seeing the immediate picture, and finally for thinking that government could manage such a "faraway" responsibility to begin with. She ends on a similarly confused note:
But Republicans should beware, and even mute their mischief. We’re in the middle of an actual disaster. When they win back the presidency, they’ll probably get the big California earthquake. And they’ll probably blow it. Because, ironically enough, of a hard core of truth within their own philosophy: when you ask a government far away in Washington to handle everything, it will handle nothing well.
But why will Republicans blow it? Noonan herself says earlier, about the lessons of Katrina:
[E]ven though the federal government in our time has continually taken on new missions and responsibilities, the more it took on, the less it seemed capable of performing even its most essential jobs. Conservatives got this point—they know it without being told—but liberals and progressives did not.
So if conservatives got this point, why then will they screw up the next disaster? If they are wise enough to know—indeed to know "without being told"—that they shouldn’t be bothering with things like health care, poverty, and injustice, they should have plenty of time to tend to government’s "most essential jobs"—things like earthquake preparedness and deep oil rig repair. Someone get John Boehner a wetsuit!
This is incoherent enough, but Noonan actually makes a point that she doesn’t intend to. Republicans agree with her that faraway Washingon shouldn’t handle everything. But the problem is that among the things they think Washington shouldn’t handle are the very things that Noonan here says they should. Republicans were against a binding debt-reduction commission. They are against comprehensive immigration reform, and only want to Finish the Danged Fence. Katrina was a disaster because the Bush administration thought preparing for disasters was overrated, and so FEMA was hollowed out and populated with half-wits. BP had no plan to fix the well because of a Republican philosophy that is hostile to public regulation of private business. Noonan’s party leadership sees tax cuts as the only essential task of government, and thinks shipping terror suspects to Gitmo and torturing them is the one faraway job that Washington should devote much more time to.
Conservative intellectuals like Noonan would do the ol’ teetering republic a huge service if they stepped back from their attachments to fantasy narratives and irrational doom scenarios, and bent their brows to the essential task of rebuilding a serious, coherent, modern conservatism. I have no idea what they’re waiting for.