Which Conservatives Matter?

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 9:24 PM EST

On Tuesday, David Leonhardt took issue with conservatives who think the stimulus didn't do any good for the economy. The next day, Reihan Salam took issue with David Leonhardt:

Leonhardt refers to "hard-core skeptics," and my worry is that this does a lot of the work for him. Critics like Desmond Lachman believe that the stimulus was poorly timed and poorly designed....Others are concerned about the impact of heavy deficit spending on long-term growth prospects, i.e., the fiscal stimulus program has a beneficial growth impact in the short term, but exacerbating extreme fiscal policy swings are very difficult to sustain....So is Leonhardt taking issue with people who believe that spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the space of a few month would have zero impact on GDP growth? In that case, I would enthusiastically agree with him.

....But again, I don't think that anyone doubts that ARRA helped perk up growth. It is very hard to imagine that spending an enormous sum of money would not.

Reihan claims that Leonhardt is arguing with a strawman, but as both Jon Chait and Matt Yglesias point out, there really are lots of conservatives — including most of the loudest ones — who believe that the stimulus literally had no impact on jobs or growth — or maybe even a negative one. It's hardly a stretch to say that this is a pretty widely held right-wing view, and Matt draws a broad conclusion from Reihan's reluctance to acknowledge this: "I think [this is] a pretty common failing among the smarter set of conservative commentators, namely a tendency to dismiss as straw-man characterizations positions that are in fact the mainstream conservative orthodoxy."

Well, yes. I'm reminded of Megan McArdle's revelation a couple of years ago when she discovered that mainstream conservatives really do have a party line that insists tax cuts always raise revenues. "A conservative publication," she admitted, "just spiked a book review because I said that the Laffer Curve didn't apply at American levels of taxation....I suppose I ought to have known, but I didn't. Go ahead liberals, pile on: you told me so."

But I think there's something else going on here too. In his post about the stimulus bill, Reihan is implicitly suggesting that liberals ought to be engaging with the best of conservative thinkers, many of whom hold nuanced and moderate positions. And it's true: some of them do. The problem is that in the real world, these nuanced and moderate thinkers have virtually no influence. Among actual politicians and high-profile yakkers, it's nearly unanimously held that, for example, the stimulus had no positive effect on the economy; that tax cuts always increase revenues; that Europeans all have poorer healthcare than Americans; and that man-made global warming is a delusion. Reihan and Megan and others like them may hold more careful views, but the vast bulk of the conservative movement simply doesn't. And that's the reality of the world that liberals have to deal with.

Now, whenever something like this comes up, I wonder if there's something similar on the liberal side of the aisle. Are there hot button issues on which the Kevin Drums and Jon Chaits of the world hold moderate, techno-googoo views, but on which elected politicians and bigfoot TV pundits unanimously insist on extreme, lockstep views? I can't really think of any. Taxes? Healthcare? National security? Immigration? Climate change? Education? Abortion? Gay rights? Labor law? On all of these, either liberal politicians hold a fairly broad variety of leftish views (national security, immigration, education) or else they hold pretty similar views but so does the commentariat (climate change, gay rights). No important issue comes to mind in which the liberal think tank community holds a lively and diverse set of opinions but actual liberal politicians unanimously maintain a death grip on some extreme, base-pleasing position.

But that doesn't mean there isn't one. It just means I can't think of it. So help me out. Can anyone come up with a few good examples?

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