The Problematics of Punditry

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Thomas Edsall’s latest piece for TNR is, I think, a great example of why the sort of “interested in ideas” / “interested in consequences” dichotomy that Jon Chait in part relies on in his article on the netroots doesn’t really hold up. What Edsall thinks, it seems to me, is that when Harry Reid made is “war is lost” comment he raised the stakes in an unnecessarily risky way under circumstances where it would have been better to say something like “Bush has lost the war.” The claim that “Bush has lost the war” is a more politically effective message than “the war is lost” seems reasonable, and writing a column on that subject is a reasonable thing to do.

Still, that insight radically underdetermines what your column will say. Edsall’s column could have noted what Reid said, noted that it provided the fodder for right-wing attacks, and then defended Reid by saying “but of course Reid was right — the war is lost, the Bush administration lost the war, and the right is on the warpath because they know Reid is in the neighborhood of a message that will devastate the GOP in 2008: Bush lost the war, and John McCain (or Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson) and the entire Republican congress clapped from the sidelines while he did it.” Alternatively, you could write the column Edsall actually did write, which is full of lamenting Reid’s boneheaded political error, piling on with those calling Reid a blunderer, etc., etc., etc. The two columns are both based around the same thesis about the Iraq War and national security, but one is a pro-Reid “fighting Dems” kind of column and the other is an anti-Reid “concern troll” kind of column.

It would be silly to pretend that Edsall isn’t aware of the different consequences that these different columns will have. These consequences, moreover, extend beyond the political sphere to things writers are more likely to care about like their actual careers. Thus, it’s just Edsall’s penchant for spinning substantively left-of-center views into attacks on Democratic elected officials that does things like earn him praise from Mickey Kaus as “one of the subtlest and best-informed political reporters around–and a Democrat allergic to bogus Dem optimism.” The bulk of the incentive structure points, in my experience, to writing the column the way Edsall did, rather than in the pro-Reid manner. The point, however, is that what one believes to be accurate about Iraq and Iraq-related political messaging does surprisingly little to constrain the tone and basic orientation of one’s columns on the subject. What’s more, while “Dems who bash Dems” like to think of a bias in that direction as an act of bold truth telling, the fact is that the balance of power is on the other side; praising the courage of someone with the guts to knock Harry Reid in these circumstances is like hailing someone who fires on unarmed demonstrators for speaking truth to power.