Thursday, June 21, 2007


Definining Conservatism, Continued

In the latest round of my online conversation with Ric Caric, a progressive blogger from Kentucky, Ric responded to my detailed explanation of why I am not a conservative (and why that distinction matters) by saying he was unpersuaded.

After sorting through Ric's reasoning, I realize that pretty much nothing I say is going to sway him on this specific point -- he's pretty locked into his own definition of what a conservative is. But I still think this dialogue is worth continuing, largely because it is helping to tease out an existential argument that I believe Democrats need to openly engage in, and also because Ric seems like a good guy and I enjoy the give-and-take, no matter our disagreements.

So here goes Round 5. . .

Dear Ric:

Thanks for your last note. Sorry for not replying sooner, and sorry you are not feeling better.

I really appreciate your taking the time to read all of my blog posts and op-eds from this year and your candor in explaining why you were ultimately unmoved by my answers to your initial batch of questions. I won't bother to try to change your mind, but I would like to pick up on a few of the points you made (which I found quite revealing) and hone in on what I see as the real nub of our disagreement (which I believe has little to do with the actual definition of conservative).

Let me start by saying I am glad that you were glad to concede, based on the weighty evidence I provided about my values and issue positions, that I have a "liberal heart or liberal self." As far as I am concerned, that settles the primary argument we were having, which was a question of philosophy and ideology -- of what I actually believe. Everything else in your response goes to a totally separate (though related) argument, which is a question of politics and partisanship -- of how we say things.

Just consider the catalogue of my supposed offenses you cited, which boils down to the following: A) I don't attack conservatives vociferously and frequently enough in my writing; B) I am willing to commentate for media outlets the Netroots widely believe are conservative; and C) I am willing to say some positive things about some Republicans.

This would hardly constitute proof to most any dispassionate observer that I am myself a closet conservative -- especially given that even your thin associative arguments don't really hold up (more on that below). What it does show, beyond any reasonable doubt, is that in your eyes and to many in the Netroots I am a bad Democrat. Of course, I don't agree with that conclusion or the grounds for making it. But that at least is a legitimate argument to have, and I think we would all be better off if we acknowledged that is the real issue here.

The big tip-off here was this line in your response: "most people with Democratic Party perspectives would look on you as a conservative." There is no factual basis for making this claim, and I suspect it is demonstrably untrue -- I bet polling would show that the majority of average Democrats would use a more conventional, normative, ideological-based standard for judging what a conservative is, and you yourself admit that I clearly don't meet that definition. I am willing to concede, though, that most people in the Netroots would probably reach that conclusion, for the same self-referential reasons you seem to do -- if I don't detest conservatives and Republicans more broadly, publicly profess my hatred, and generally treat them as the enemy, then I am by extension must be one myself.

This lays bare why the argument over who is a conservative is such a red (or should I say blue in this case) herring -- your real complaint with Democrats like me is that we are not partisan enough. If you are willing to accept that, then we can have a healthy debate about the merits of that loyalty argument, and I can explain in more depth why I think the hardline approach that the Netroots tends to take on this point is destructive and ultimately self-defeating -- starting with this dangerous notion that good Democrats can't have good Republican friends.

In the meantime, let me offer a few more specific observations about your response.

First, as I alluded to above, I want to correct some of your assumptions about my associations you find so troubling.

A) I have appeared as a political analyst on MSNBC upwards of 30 times since the Lieberman campaign ended last fall, probably fives times more often than I have been on Fox in the same time period, and I would welcome the chance to go on CNN. Locally, I have also appeared frequently on NY1 (the New York cable news channel) and occasionally on WNBC-TV (the local NBC affiliate). So it's inaccurate to suggest there is an ideological or political bent to my TV commentary.

B) As I noted before, it's nothing more than a canard to say that The Politico has a conservative bias, and to be blunt, the Netroots are just making themselves look foolish by peddling this myth without any hard evidence. The fact is, just because a media outlet publishes stories that reflect poorly does not make it a conservative mouthpiece -- by that standard the New York Times, which ran thousands of column inches exploring various Clinton scandals, would be judged a right-wing rag.

C) When I write political commentary, as I did in the piece on Rudy Giuliani you cited, more often than not I am making dispassionate, strategic assessments, not acting as a partisan activist. In the case of the Rudy piece, I stressed his political strengths and crossover appeal to challenge a bit of conventional wisdom and support an argument about his electoral prospects -- that is a far cry from endorsing or advocating for him.

Second, while I have found most of your correspondence civil and respectful, I have to say I found your question about my support for gay rights ("I wonder if you would have stuck up for such "risky" liberal issues if your mother and sister weren't gay") a little bit of a cheap shot. I believe in gay rights for the same reasons I have always been an advocate for racial equality -- I place great faith in the American promise of equal opportunity and fundamental value of fairness. In fact, I supported Bill Bradley in the primary against Al Gore in part because I admired the guts and principle Bradley showed throughout his career in making race a central issue of his work in public life.

Now it's true that my sensitivities on gay rights have been deepened by having lesbian family members. But I have a hard time seeing how anyone could twist that into a negative. Ideally, I wish many more Americans could find themselves in a similar position -- we'd have a lot less ignorance and fear, and a lot more tolerance and progress.

Third, to your larger point about my "disappeared" liberal self, I thought I had addressed this in my answers to your questions, but I guess not clearly enough. This goes in part to the professional role I have carved out for myself. I am a strategist, not an activist, and I like to write about politics from a strategic and tactical perspective. Moreover, as I noted before, I am particularly interested in exploring ideas and arguments that challenge conventional wisdom instead of reinforcing it (which is a primary focus of the Netroots).

But it also goes to the question of what it means to be a good Democrat that I reference above. I believe that our party has some serious structural problems -- which have helped made it easier for the Republicans to gain and hold power -- and that we as a party must confront and fix those problems instead of denying their existence if we want to build a long-term majority coalition. That's why I have devoted a lot of my commentary to inside-the-family analysis and criticism.

The fact is, there are lots of smart, effective people like you taking on the flaws of the other side, and I am glad you are there to do that. But in my view there is not nearly enough thoughtful and candid conversation about our internal challenges, and I made a decision to do what I could to help fill that vacuum.

Hence the critiques I have made from time to time of the Netroots' excesses. As I have repeated ad nauseam, I don't view them as the enemy -- I just don't buy into the simplistic "with-us-or-against-us" construct that so many in the progressive blogosphere use. I do believe, though, that some of their conduct is damaging to the Democratic Party's interests and to our politics more broadly, and to ignore that would be bad for the causes that we both care about.

In this, I am doing just what Howard Dean did in his campaign throughout 2003. Dean's primary argument boiled down to a critique (or an attack, depending on your perspective) on the Democratic Party establishment. The only reason you don't think he was being disloyal or self-hating was that you agreed with Dean's assessment (as did I to some extent). So I welcome you to dispute my conclusions, about the Netroots's excesses and/or the party's direction, but would ask you to hold me to the same standard as Dean, and please stop questioning my motivations.

Now, I grant you, I have used some sharp language in challenging the Netroots on some things -- but hardly anywhere near as sharp as the rhetoric the Netroots typically use to challenge those they disagree with. So when I hear complaints like yours about some of the words I have used, I find it hard to get past the obvious double standard at work here. But as I said to you in my last note, I regret not being more balanced in some of my critiques, in particular not noting more of the positive contributions the Netroots have made to our party and our politics, and I am focused on being better about that going forward. I just hope some of your peers would be similarly self-reflective from time to time.

Lastly, let me say you are right in some sense in your final conclusion about my "relocation" efforts. It's not that I feel I have been untrue to myself or cynically hiding my progressive beliefs. It's just that I got kind of tired of being defined (and in some cases defiled) publicly by those who don't know me, and decided it would better to engage in this conversation and define myself. That's why I reachd out to you -- I thought you would be receptive -- and I have not been disappointed.

Thanks again for listening. Look forward to continuing this exchange to whatever extent you are interested.




Ric Caric is a pompous idiot who should be ignored. Ric Ric (as I call him) believes he is right, no matter what, and everyone else is wrong. There is no point in having a dialogue with someone who has this sort of arrogant, holier-than-thou mentality.

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