Sam Tanenhaus Issues Another Smug Takedown of GOP on Cover of New York Times Mag

July 6th, 2014 12:45 PM

Sam Tanenhaus's 6,300-word cover story for the New York Times' Sunday Magazine, "Can the G.O.P. Be a Party of Ideas?" is marinated in the same superior smugness that distorted his 2009 hit-piece book on the conservative movement.

Tanenhaus, currently a "writer-at-large" for the Times, is still hailed in liberal circles as an expert on the conservative movement, even though his slim, slanted 2009 book The Death of Conservatism (talk about wishful thinking) proved rather ill-timed, coming as it did before the Tea Party resurgence. The book ludicrously labeled President Obama a centrist in a long line of Democratic centrists, including ... George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis. Tanenhaus also likened the conservative movement to "the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology." So when the Times wants an "objective" view of the conservative movement, it's obvious Tanenhaus is the guy to provide it.

His new cover story, on the GOP's new "reformicon" movement, is sometimes informative but marinated in the same smugness that distorted The Death of Conservatism.

In May, a handful of prominent legislators gathered at a Beltway think tank, along with some writers and policy experts, to discuss, as the event’s organizers somberly put it, “conservative policy options to further the prosperous society President Lyndon Johnson described in his ‘Great Society’ address 50 years ago.” If this seemed strange, the venue and cast were even stranger: the American Enterprise Institute, a bastion of right-leaning ideology, filled with Republicans, speaking in a language most unlike the one we’ve heard in recent years.

Tanenhaus noted some prominent GOP polls making apparently heretical remarks about Wall Street, Ayn Rand, and child tax credits, before focusing on two conservative "intellectual prodigies" and reformicons, Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru.

....together they have become the leaders of a small band of reform conservatives, sometimes called reformicons, who believe the health of the G.O.P. hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine -- orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street -- and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.


Over time, this formulation has assumed new meaning. When Kristol and colleagues like Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer began their project, the Great Society was at its peak, and an abundance of new programs -- dealing with poverty, education and housing, among others -- were ripe for analysis. But in the decades that followed, government ambition shrank, largely as a result of the critiques Kristol made. In that period the G.O.P. was often acknowledged to be the party of ideas, while Democrats seemed to have lapsed into defending various so-called interest groups. Since then, the situation has reversed. Democrats have pushed the policy debate, while Republicans have become a party of opposition. Today Republican “rule” often means obstruction, and its supposed principles sound like dogma. As for reality, it gave us the presidential prospects of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann and absurdist moments, like the Republican presidential-primary debate in which all eight participants said they would reject a hypothetical deal with Democrats in which one dollar of increased taxation would be exchanged for 10 dollars of reduced spending.

Tanenhaus praised Levin's policy journal National Affairs with a faint damn for "seriousness of an almost antiquated kind...a forced march of acronyms and statistics." But Levin's criticism of the modern-day right landed directly in Tanenhaus's wheelhouse, with its depictions of an imaginary Edenic past, where reasonable conservative minds were respected for their intellect (never mind that liberals were bashing those same people as troglodytes back then):

The descriptions are both flattering and tinged with irony, for this is not a hospitable moment for serious-minded intellectuals on the right. The place once claimed in the culture by Kristol and William F. Buckley Jr. is now inhabited by Fox News hosts and Rush Limbaugh and the radio host Laura Ingraham, who is widely credited with mobilizing the troops who expelled Eric Cantor from Congress. Levin is circumspect about the competing noise. What disturbs him more is the long years of silence on the front where he operates. Rather than blame the media agitators and congressional extremists for his party’s lack of substance, Levin said on a recent panel devoted to “the future of conservatism” that “the policy vacuum on the right itself has been the fault for a long time of people like us.”

Tanenhaus defended liberals from Levin's criticism in his first book, in which Levin wrote that conservatives “do not believe that enormous bulky social systems can be designed from scratch to achieve precisely some desired outcome. The proponents of the social scientific attitude, on the other hand, are firmly convinced of mankind’s ability to pull off such flawless feats of design and control.”

Tanenhaus wouldn't stand for that, criticizing Levin's attack on Obama-care before bashing free markets in general.

This is, at best, a caricature of liberal conceptions of social science. But 13 years later, Levin clings to this view....It is an old idea, most commonly associated with the attack on the self-infatuated, power-besotted “new class” that Irving Kristol and other neoconservatives made a generation ago. Levin has updated the argument for the Obama years, the “tyranny of reason” having resulted, for instance, in a complex health care system designed and administered by a cadre of experts, when it would be better left to the homely market. And yet the unfettered market has historically failed to protect citizens from the ravages of economic downturns, including the recent Great Recession. If any species of blind faith has in fact damaged our democracy, it was blind faith in “the market,” which gave us the deregulatory fever that began under Reagan and lasted through Obama’s election in 2008.

Even with the Affordable Care Act now law, Tanenhaus doesn't see the current era as a liberal one. After noting the influence of the Heritage Foundation's famous briefing book on Reagan-era legislation, Tanenhaus claimed:

The situation in 2014 looks very different. It is hard to make the case that a new age of liberalism even exists to be rolled back. The shadow of Reagan still looms large....Today many on the right, including the reformicons, insistently depict Obama as a radical, but they are well aware he kept all but the top sliver of George W. Bush’s giant tax cut. And for all the efforts to discredit Obamacare, it was ratified by the most conservative Supreme Court in modern history. Every reformer I talked to acknowledged that the principle of universal coverage is here to stay, in whatever form, including the operations advanced by Republicans who want to “repeal and replace” Obama’s plan, the basis of which was hatched from a conservative policy suggestion that originated in 1989 from the Heritage Foundation.