Matt Bai Knows Not of Which He Writes.

Matt Bai.jpg

In this week's New York Times magazine, Matt Bai writes about the new conservative answer to the Center for American Progress -- which, if you've been keeping tabs, was the old-new liberal answer to the Heritage Foundation, in turn the old-new-new conservative answer to the Ford Foundation and its ilk. Yes, exhausting. Bai's argument that this new think tank is not going to produce great new ideas is true, since thus far the people involved are political operatives, not policy wonks.

Bai goes further, suggesting that all the new think tanks, including CAP, have nothing on the old Heritage Foundation and the Democratic Leadership Committee, which genuinely "confronted the orthodoxies of their day" as opposed to working around the edges of the status quo. Bai forgets, though, how unorthodox progressive policy was during the Bush administration. For instance, consider CAP's willingness to call the events at Abu Ghraib "torture" in 2004 (!) when many mainstream outlets won't do so today. Its 2005-era Strategic Redeployment plan for Iraq was also well ahead of its time, and ahead of Bai. True, CAP is focused on communication and politics as much as it is on policy, something of a novelty for a progressive think tank, but that doesn't diminish its idea-generating apparatus.

And then, the inevitable dig at blogs:

Perhaps the pace and shallowness of our political culture — the echo chamber of pundits and bloggers in which the shelf life of some new slogan can be measured in weeks or even days — makes it all but impossible to sustain a serious public argument over a period of years.

Bai makes a living as a political writer who takes ideas seriously, but the limit of his engagement with "serious public argument" is clear if he thinks that blogs aren't a venue for serious discussion. He obviously ignores political scientists; he's clearly never taken up with deeply wonky blogs like Credit Slips or read budget expert Stan Collender's work. As for pursuing arguments over years, how long has Ezra Klein been writing about health care? How long has Matt Yglesias been critiquing U.S. foreign policy? How long has Andrew Sullivan explored his own long-standing themes?

I'm trying to think of a serious public argument that Bai has been involved in over the years, but so far as I remember, he mainly writes deeply reported personality sketches and demographic discussions. It seems that blogs are actually a better venue for addressing ideas than a weekly magazine.

-- Tim Fernholz

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