The New York Times has long included among its columnists a number of conservatives, presumably out of a desire to demonstrate an openness to diverse viewpoints by the otherwise liberal newspaper. Its two most prominent house conservatives, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, are both smart guys who sometimes have interesting things to say (Douthat especially). Although their partisan sympathies are quite clear, both avoid crassly partisan arguments. Both generally show regard for the idea that opinion columnists should be aware of opposing arguments and prepared to address them. Some years ago the Times experimented with another house conservative, neoconservative guru Bill Kristol. Kristol remained at the paper for about a year, I think, before the Times let him go, apparently for the sloppiness and uneven quality of his work. Kristol was a partisan hack in ways that Brooks and Douthat have never been; his writing reflected an ideological zeal that clearly exceeded any zeal for balance or accuracy.
The Times today seems to have added a new house conservative to its ranks, one Peter Wehner, who we are told served in the last three Republican administrations. Judging from his debut column, Wehner will be closer to the mold of Kristol than to that of Brooks or Douthat. I was tempted this morning to dash off a letter to the editor of the Times, but there are so many things so grossly wrong with Wehner’s column that I could hardly begin to discuss them within the word limit the Times imposes for letters.
Wehner’s basic claim is that the Democratic Party has moved far to the left; indeed, farther to the left than the Republicans have moved to the right. This is patently, demonstrably false. Methodologically rigorous analysis by political scientists* shows precisely the opposite: while Democrats in Congress have moved a bit to the left in recent decades, the Republicans have moved far to the right. Most of the Democratic shift is attributable to the party’s decline in the conservative South; the average northern Democratic is no more liberal than he was 40 years ago, while the average Republican—southern or northern– is far more conservative.
Wehner has no data to support his ridiculous claim, so he relies almost entirely on the argument that the Obama administration has been more liberal than the Bill Clinton administration. This is a dubious procedure in any case: Jimmy Carter was more conservative than Lyndon Johnson, but that doesn’t prove that their party moved to the right under Carter. Still, most of Wehner’s arguments, where they aren’t simply, obviously wrong, are dependent on ignoring the fact that the country and the world are not the same as they were 20 years ago. For example, Wehner tells us that Obama is more liberal than Clinton “on gay rights, religious liberties, abortion rights, drug legalization and climate change.” Huh? Today’s religious liberties issues didn’t exist in the same form during the Clinton years, but on gay rights, drug legalization and climate change Obama and the Democrats have simply moved with the times. And on abortion, Clinton was “adamantly pro-choice”: on the fourth day of his presidency he signed a series of executive orders reversing Reagan-Bush anti-abortion policies, and he later vetoed the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” Act.
As further proof of Obama’s extreme liberalism, Wehner points out that federal spending and the deficit reached record levels under Obama. That’s true, but Wehner doesn’t mention that federal spending and the deficit had also reached record levels under those notorious liberals Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In fact, federal spending and the deficit have always reached new levels under every president since John F. Kennedy. And no president since FDR has had to deal with a budget-exploding economic crisis like the one Obama inherited. Finally, Wehner cites the Affordable Care Act, “the largest new entitlement program since the Great Society. “ Wehner conveniently forgets that Clinton tried but failed to enact a health care program that was different from but no less ambitious than Obamacare.
There is another obvious big hole in Wehner’s claim that the Democrats have moved farther to the left than the Republicans to the right: he doesn’t look at the Republicans at all, except to make a brief, unsupported (and unsupportable) claim that the Republicans haven’t changed very much since the 1990s. If a comparison of the Clinton and Obama administrations can provide valid evidence of a shift in the Democrats, why not a comparison of Bush pere and Bush fils? Wehner doesn’t go there, for obvious reasons.
I’m all for ideological diversity, but surely the Times can do better than this guy.
* If you’re curious, you need only look at the chart on page 106 of the article by Bonica, McCarty, Poole, and Rosental, “Why Hasn’t Democracy Slowed Rising Inequality?” in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer 2013. The whole article is worth reading.
Update: After posting the above, I read Ed Kilgore’s very good takedown of Wehner in his Washington Monthly blog.