A Few Recent Un-Great Moments in Right-Wing Punditry

by Neil H. Buchanan

It is quite possible that punditry does not matter.  Perhaps journalists, political junkies, and policy wonks are all engaged in a completely useless exercise on a daily basis, with everyone involved pretending that what they are saying and writing is important.  The world, meanwhile, might not take any notice or be affected in any way.

I have argued, for example, that Paul Krugman's career as a pundit makes it extremely difficult to imagine that anything written on the op-ed pages of even the most influential newspaper in the world ultimately has any influence.  With the combination of Krugman's considerable communication skills and his unsurpassed credentials, one would think that we would be able to see how he has changed something, somehow, at some time.  Can we?  I have never been able to find even one clear example.

On the other hand, it is possible for no single pundit to matter but for all punditry combined to matter.  The best example of this phenomenon, in fact, is a prominent example of one of Krugman's individual failures to change the narrative.  In 2010, the Obama Administration decided to "pivot" to focus on deficit reduction, even though (as Krugman wrote again and again, with no one able to offer a coherent argument against him, then or now) that this was exactly the opposite of what we needed at the time.

Why did that happen?  Arguably, punditry made it happen.  The Obama people were trying to impress the people who collectively drive the conversation, especially the people who present themselves as that most desired breed: reasonable centrists.  One of the religious tenets of the pseudo-centrist pundits is that deficits are bad, bad, bad, and President Obama and his people felt the need to get those oh-so-sensible purveyors of the conventional wisdom on their side.

That that was a suckers' game was obvious even at the time, especially when the false centrists ignored the fact that Obama had actually offered the fiscal reactionaries all that they ever asked for (and then some), yet those pundits kept blaming him for ignoring their bible of righteous pretense -- the ridiculous Bowles-Simpson report.  Taking yes for an answer would have required the pundits to agree that one political party was being "reasonable" (at least by the pundits' standard), and saying that Democrats are right while Republicans are wrong is not allowed.  Therefore, Obama's proposals had to be deplored as the products of left-wing ideology, no matter their actual contents.

In any case, if punditry ultimately does not matter, then I am certainly one of the policy wonks who spends far too much time thinking that it does.  But it is the possibility that it does matter in the aggregate that keeps me engaged, staying ever vigilant for examples of bad (and very occasionally good) developments in the self-reinforcing conversation among those whose day jobs involve writing op-eds and talking with other people who write op-eds (often while appearing on cable TV shows in which they discuss each others' op-eds).

All of which is a preamble to justify offering some comments on a few recent opinion columns that have struck me as particularly galling.  Again, I can easily make the argument that none of these examples matter individually.  And the four that I have chosen are not even discussing the same topic.  Nonetheless, if these four examples are an indication of where things might be headed, they are worrisome in a variety of ways.

I will start with an example from three pundits who pretend to be something other than pundits.  Stephen Moore, Arthur Laffer, and Steve Forbes can all claim to have non-pundit jobs, but the simple fact is that all three long since lost any credible claim to being anything but part of the pundit-industrial complex, feeding the op-ed pages and talk shows with their particular brand of evidence-resistant economic drivel.

But their particular talent is not merely writing over and over again that taxes are bad and that taxes on rich people and corporations are especially bad.  They also layer on a thick topping of pure Republican partisanship.  Thus the three of them combined this week to bring us a New York Times column carrying the title "How Trump Could Be Like Reagan" with the sub-headline: "Just as Ronald Reagan once pushed for abolishing nuclear weapons, President Trump should call for ending tariffs."

Consider the utter predictability of what is obviously intended to be a counter-intuitive column.  Trump has frequently been criticized for trashing the Reagan-era Republican Party, which he has done in a few ways even as he has signed onto the bulk of the Republicans agenda of upward income redistribution, destroying consumer and environmental protections, attacking workers' rights and benefits, amping up attacks on minorities, and of course turning back the clock on women's rights and LGBTQ progress.

What should good Republican pundits do?  Why, invoke the name of St. Ronald himself, and claim that Trump is in fact just as brilliant as Reagan.  (The idea that Reagan, the original fact- and logic-challenged entertainer-turned-politician, is now held out as the standard of brilliance is its own scandal, of course.)  Because even hard-core Republicans understand that invoking Richard Nixon's name is still (thankfully) poisonous, they cannot claim that Trump is aiming for a "Nixon and China" moment, instead claiming that Trump is like Reagan.

How can they get there?  By claiming, as his defenders love to do at all times, that Trump is playing multi-dimensional chess.  The illogic goes something like this: "See, he's perfectly setting this up by starting a trade war, saying that it's easy to win but really planning to prove that tariffs are bad."  The un-falsifiable argument is that Trump's seeming apostasy to pro-trade Republicans is really not a problem, because he is making himself the perfect pro-trade guy.

So what does this op-ed actually add to the conversation?  That Republicans who dislike some of the things that Trump is doing should not be worried, because everything Trump is doing will ultimately be exactly what Republicans want.  Even when it is the opposite.

Moore, Laffer, and Forbes need not worry about having left the well plowed fields of trickle-down punditry behind, because the mainstream press's endlessly futile efforts to prove that they are "fair" constantly results in the major papers' decisions to hire right-wing pundits who have no evident expertise.  The Washington Post, for example, recently added a right-winger named Megan McArdle to its list of regular pundits.

Back in May, I published a column on Verdict in which I discussed one of McArdle's early efforts for The Post, in which she blamed the housing crisis in wealthy American cities on (among other things) this bizarre list: "Health and safety codes. Earthquake-proofing. And so on down the line."  After writing that column, I noticed that McArdle's pieces are notable only because they are so utterly predictable.  She is, in fact, a throwback to the time before Trump, when right-wing economic policy was justified by the usual mantra of anti-government libertarian tropes.

This week, McArdle decided to inform us that the there is "a good corporate tax rate: Zero."  Why?  Because businesses try too hard to evade taxes, and besides, "we already have an excellent tool for taxing rich people who own stock or manage companies: the personal income tax."  The argument then becomes one of those exercises in self-styled reasonableness in which the author presents a supposed compromise that will never work as advertised.

What is that compromise?  Reduce tax rates for business to near zero, eliminate the special treatment of capital gains, and "if this arrangement turns out to cost the Treasury Department money, then nudge the top rate up to compensate."  The second part of that plan (increasing the tax on capital gains) is in fact a great idea, but it is obvious that it will never be adopted by Republicans, and certainly they would never go back and "nudge the top rate up" even after the evidence was clear that revenues were down.

This is, in short, yet another Trojan Horse for cutting taxes on the rich and then failing to make up for the loss.  Even if the capital gains exception were eliminated, after all, people like McArdle would immediately argue to bring it back in the name of "efficiency."  There is always an apologist for trickle-down economics, and it is all the better if the person presenting it can claim to be a compromiser.

So these two examples demonstrate that the Trump-era conversation on economics is still the same old conversation, with Moore/Laffer/Forbes using it to justify love of Trump but McArdle pretending that there is a way to make right-wing tax cuts look like centrist policy.  That latter argument, of course, is exactly what Republicans were hoping to make about the Trump-Ryan-McConnell tax travesty that they passed in December 2017, but now Republican candidates are trying not to talk about their big wonderful tax cut at all.

On the purely political side of the world of punditry, the picture is even more depressing.  Hugh Hewitt, who became an influential voice in pre-Trump movement conservative politics, used the gift of some space on The Post's op-ed page to announce: "Even if you loathe Trump, vote Republican."  Why?  Hewitt would lose his I'm-so-reasonable card if he tried to say that Trump is great, so he admits that Trump is deeply problematic.

But Republicans, he claims, "have figured out how to work with this most unusual of presidents."  (Trump is merely unusual, you see, not an existential danger to the republic.)  And Democrats?  They (and the mainstream media, of course) are supposedly sputtering with outrage, and they will only "ratchet up this culture of conflict and chaos if they are returned to power."  It's all about keeping the twin bogeypeople Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer out of power, so "the downside of Democratic majorities in either house of Congress is so much larger than another two years like the last two."

The op-ed is truly wondrous in its own way, pretending that Trump has succeeded in nearly everything.  The most laugh-inducing example: "When the U.S. military pummeled Russian mercenaries in Syria, Moscow got the clearest message anyone can get anywhere."  So a president who refuses to take the threat of a hostile foreign power seriously is suddenly Russia's biggest fear, merely because he fired some missiles to no strategic effect?

It is one thing for someone like Hewitt to simply deny reality in attacking Democrats and defending Trump, but it was surprising to see The Post's Richard Cohen -- the one pundit under examination here who is not clearly a conservative -- join in the fun by claiming that Trump's recent self-debasement and national sellout in Helsinki was no big deal.  Yet Cohen, as the kids say, went there.

Cohen informs his readers: "There is such a thing, we are told, as Trump Derangement Syndrome. It is an ideological version of a speech disorder, which causes certain people to denounce Trump in obscene ways."  Indeed, Hewitt is one of the people whom Cohen must have been channeling, because the Hewitt piece discussed above assured us that "'Trump Derangement Syndrome' is real."

Notably, Hewitt's embedded link leads to a column in which Trump himself "diagnoses" his opponents' affliction with that syndrome.  Just as Trump thinks he invented terms like "priming the pump," he apparently also thinks he invented a phrase that has been applied to the detractors of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

But why is Cohen invoking the dreaded syndrome?  "It has prompted others to call Trump a traitor, which is a slanderous accusation too often used for crass political reasons. Sen. Joseph McCarthy called the Roosevelt-Truman administrations '20 years of treason.'"

There you have it.  When John Brennan, a career CIA man and national security expert (who was, by the way, accused of supporting rendition of terrorist suspects while he served under George W. Bush, so he is hardly a lefty) says that Trump's Helsinki debacle was "nothing short of treasonous," and other intelligence experts express shock and dismay as well, a Post pundit dismisses all of that not merely as Trump Derangement Syndrome but as McCarthyism.  Wow.

All of which explains why Trump was so quickly able to get past that particular scandal.  It is evidently the job of even non-Republican pundits to shush any talk that sounds impolite.  Other people have misused the word "treason" in the past, so all uses of that word are now deemed to be out of bounds, no matter the evidence.  And Democrats have predictably responded by refusing to talk about treason, validating the pundits' control of the political conversation.

At this point, maybe the best we can hope for is that the pundits truly do not matter.  If they do actually matter, we are even worse off than it might have seemed.