Commentary Magazine


Re: The Next President’s Inevitable Mistakes

Pete, I think you provide a timely and insightful warning about the dangers of excessive and unbridled criticism of a new administration facing enormous challenges. I have a few additional thoughts and a distinction to offer on the subject you raised.

We shouldn’t get too carried away with restraint in the effort to be good citizens and loyal opponents. It is entirely appropriate and indeed helpful to the cause of good governance to call it as we see it when the President makes an error. If an unqualified or an ethically questionable nominee is put forward, as I would argue are the cases with Leon Panetta and Eric Holder, respectively, then the criticism is not only warranted but vital. If the President comes out with a bloated and ill-conceived stimulus package critics shouldn’t pull their punches.

The errors the next President is likely to make will, I suspect, come from hubris and, specifically, the hubris which comes from having “handled” the press so effectively during the campaign. Unlike a Republican administration, which would exercise a second round of vetting and self-evaluation in advance of criticism it knows will be unleashed, the Obama team has come to expect a degree of latitude almost unheard of in American political coverage. This isn’t in the long run a good thing — it promotes laxity and puts a premium on political salesmanship over carefully thought out policy. The temptation to conclude that “no one will notice” or “this should fly under the radar” is great.

So I think observers, whether from the Left or the Right, are well advised to offer criticism when warranted. It might improve the decision making and cause the administration to think twice before embarking on a rash course of action.

But two caveats should apply, I think. First, praise shouldn’t be withheld when warranted. Many here at CONTENTIONS and elsewhere around the Right blogosphere have complimented some of the President-elect’s better national security personnel selections and defended him for reaching out to Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration, to cite two examples. There should be more of that sort of encouragement and praise as we go forward. It does conservatives no good to be stingy with compliments. To the contrary, it serves the policy aims of those on the Right to demonstrate that the President-elect’s efforts to move to the center (and indeed to the right) will be appreciated.

Second, conservatives should get out of the business of questioning the motives of their opponents. This (coupled with the vile language, ideological extremism and hyper-negativity) was the Left’s failing during the Bush years. And sometimes the Right fell into the same trap.  ”Bush lied”– he didn’t merely get the WMD intelligence wrong, the netroots cried. Bush, we were told, hated poor people, didn’t care about the environment and wanted to rip apart the Republican party on immigration reform to gain Hispanic votes. All of these were accusations of motive and intent, built on flimsy grounds. The legitimate policy differences with the administration became twisted into nefarious plots and sinister intentions.

Conservatives shouldn’t get into this messy business. It isn’t necessary or becoming. If the President-elect makes a bad pick for CIA or Attorney General, conservatives can say it without attributing a nasty motive. If he extends an olive branch to House Republicans, why accuse him of trying to sucker punch the opposition? And if he comes out with an ill-conceived national health care plan, conservatives should explain why it is ill-conceived. In short, argue the merits, not the intentions.

Pete, all of this is a long way of saying your overarching point was precisely correct: the manner and tone of the criticism of the next President should be an improvement, not a repetition of what we witnessed in the Bush years. In that regard, “changing the tone” in Washington is as much the responsibility of the loyal opposition as it is of the next President.