Every now and then we point out why we tend to pick on conservatives (which we do). There are lots of reasons. The main reason is not that we’re liberal (which we are); it’s not that we think any particular liberal argument is advanced by pointing out the weaknesses in corresponding conservative arguments (they’re not–but then again the liberal arguments may not fail for the sophistical refutations brought forward by conservatives, that’s different); nor is it that we think that finding fault with conservative arguments and arguers in general advances the cause of liberalism in general.
Rather, the primary reason is that conservative pundits have a marked tendency to state their views in the form of arguments. That is to say, they’ll give a series of reasons for embracing some conclusion or another. Since we like arguments, we like reading them and thinking about them, we find this approach appealing (even if we find it often lacking).
On the liberal side (i.e., among major newspaper pundits–the blogosphere is another matter entirely), on the other hand, you don’t often see the kind of energetic arguing typical of George Will or Charles Krauthammer. This is not an indictment of liberal pundits either. There are lots of ways of stating one’s case. Stating in the form of a persuasive argument is just one. We wish they did it more. But that’s a different matter.
Take E.J.Dionne’s op-ed today as an example of the difference between liberal and conservative pundits. Dionne writes about Ted Strickland, Governor of Ohio. In discussing Strickland’s success (in an otherwise red state), Dionne points out that his positions resonate with the people:
>Strickland’s political skill only partly explains Ohio’s political transformation. A state that voted narrowly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004 not only elected Strickland as governor in 2006 but also sent Sherrod Brown, an economic populist with a far-more liberal public profile, to the U.S. Senate.
>The conversion rate among Ohio voters in just two years was staggering. According to exit polling, 30 percent of Ohioans who voted for Bush in 2004 voted for Strickland in 2006; 20 percent of Bush’s 2004 voters supported Brown.
>Why the big change? Scandals involving former governor Robert Taft and former representative Bob Ney made even loyal Republicans squeamish. Strickland won a fifth of self-identified Republicans and a quarter of conservatives, while holding on to more than 90 percent of liberals and Democrats, and roughly 70 percent of moderates and independents. If national Democrats reached such numbers in 2008, they’d win the presidency decisively.
>The new economy has hit Ohio hard. Industrial cities such as Youngstown and Cleveland have suffered under the lash of globalization. Brown’s tough stand against free trade appealed in a place where the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs makes the promise of a flat, highly competitive world fall very flat indeed.
>What might Democratic presidential candidates learn from Ohio? As a matter of style, Strickland suggests they must understand that “people are desperately wanting to believe that political leaders understand them and that they are trying to deal with their day-to-day lives.” Memo to overly cautious candidates: Strickland also thinks that “the display of genuine emotion is important.”
>Substantively, Strickland says the economy matters most, although he has been a strong opponent of the Iraq war from the beginning. “The foreclosure problem is huge,” Strickland says. “The people are desperate for jobs.” He sees health care and education as central — they were the key issues in his recent budget. These questions “ought to give Democrats a leg up,” but only if they can “talk about these things in a way that gets people to believe you will do something about them.”
>There’s the rub for Democrats in 2008. Voters want government to work but aren’t sure that it can. They want government to solve problems but worry that it won’t. This creates a strategic paradox: Democrats need to discredit Bush’s government without discrediting government altogether.
All of this may be a fine explanation of Strickland’s success. But it has the air of a trade journal publication for political strategists. Why should it interest a typical voter to read an article in the newspaper about what the typical voter wants? From the point of view of political analysis, on the other hand, Strickland’s story is interesting. But you couldn’t put anything Dionne says here against the conservative pundit who will argue that the voters are wrong.
Sure they voted that way. But why should they vote that way? Whatever his many vices, and they are many, that’s the kind of question George Will would be asking.