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Ross Douthat's Fantasy World

The New York Times' wunderkind columnist is on a quest to save intellectual conservatism.

As a blogger and essayist, Douthat was so careful to qualify his statements, and so congenial, that he frequently charmed opponents into a respectful truce. He has his critics, like feminist blogger Amanda Marcotte, who has called him a "wild misogynist, an anti-choice nut who flirts with hostility to contraception." But Douthat has also demonstrated that he truly cares about problems like income inequality. "I would say he differs from mainstream American conservatism in not having a 'la-di-da' attitude toward the continued existence of serious social problems in the United States," liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias said in an email.

But in his new, 750-word op-ed format, Douthat has not found a voice for the iconoclasm that characterizes his best work. "I am an idiosyncratic conservative writing a column for a majority-liberal readership," he explains. "And that has to make a difference in the topics you choose. My audience is presumably already convinced the Republican Party is irredeemably corrupt." While Douthat has, in his column, charged the right-wing radio talkers with "inflexibility, grudge-holding and eagerness to evict heretics rather than seek converts," he usually just ignores them. "The constructive stuff has much more chance of getting you where you want to go," he says.

The problem, of course, is that right now there isn't much constructive stuff to be found in conservatism. In Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam propose a positive vision that includes wage subsidies, class-based affirmative action, and cuts in payroll taxes for the poor and middle class, paid for by means-testing Social Security. Their program may sound center-left, but their motivation is classically conservative: supporting the two-parent nuclear family. But you won't find such hopefulness in Douthat's column, which tends to err on the side of pragmatism. Sure enough, Douthat can't name a single lawmaker, in either house, who embodies his vision of social conservatism and middle-class fair-dealism. He offers, without enthusiasm, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is pro-life and favors a carbon tax. (He neglects to mention Corker's sleazy, race-baiting 2006 campaign against Harold Ford Jr.) In the end, he admits the intellectual life of the GOP is pretty bleak. "We haven't seen very many Republican politicians who are interested in moving beyond slogans."

Seeking to be constructive rather than destructive, yet allied with a party that doesn't share that predilection, Douthat has hung columns on Dick Cheney, senators Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin. He finds things to like in all but Specter, "a consummately unprincipled figure." Last July, Douthat wrote a column acknowledging Palin's "missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues." But he also defended her as a victim of gender and class prejudice.

Some of his columns contain what blogger Yglesias calls "a characteristic Douthat-ian error...a powerful desire to believe, contrary to the evidence, that some or another Republican Party blowhard is secretly an ambitious policy wonk." It is this faith in people that trumps his sense of sin just when we need it most—to call to account a dissembler like Palin or a warmonger like Cheney. In fact, Douthat can be almost Unitarian in his agnosticism. Sometimes that's a virtue: He quit blogging for a time after concluding he was unqualified to comment on the Iraq War. Other times it's a shame: The bumbling, touching candor he brings to the subject of gay marriage would make for a memorable, important column.

Maybe he will write that column one day. And maybe he'll write another one reflecting what he said when I asked what he'd do about abortion if he made the laws. (Douthat's writings tend to extol a culture of life without suggesting what that might look like, so I was curious.) He began with the boilerplate position: "It would probably be a blanket ban on abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother." He went on, however, to say such a ban would require "radical experimentation with the welfare state" and likely "a lot of new welfare agencies of one kind or another," plus orphanages and an expanded "network of crisis pregnancy centers." Nobody involved would go to jail, he said, as "it is possible to believe that abortion is murder and also believe it is a completely unique form of murder. Abortion would be, you know, if you have first-degree murder, second and third's like seventh-degree murder or something."

"But," he quickly noted, "those things aren't on the table."

No, they're not. What Douthat envisions falls into the realm of the utopian—it's magical, Tolkien-like thinking. Few of today's Republicans would be so concerned with the welfare of those babies after birth, or be so lenient with the doctors. Still, it provides a glimpse of the real Ross Douthat, a young man who is still very much interested in the impossible.

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