What happens to an ideologue when the president in whom he invested enormous hope is increasingly seen as a failure? For one answer, see the lead “Talk of the Town” item in The New Yorker, where Hendrik Hertzberg writes this:

Invoking the Fourteenth Amendment has always been a long shot, a last refuge. But Obama’s seeming refusal to hold it in reserve … is emblematic of his all too civilized, all too accommodating negotiating strategy–indeed, of his whole approach to the nation’s larger economic dilemma, the most disappointing  aspect of his Presidency. His stimulus package asked for too little and got less. He has allowed deficits and debt to supercede mass unemployment as the emergency of the moment. He has too readily accepted Republican terms of debate, such as likening the country to a household that must ‘live within its  means.’ (For even the most prudent householders, living within one’s means can include going into debt, as in taking out a car loan so that one can get to one’s job.) He has done too little to educate the public to the wisdom of post-Herbert Hoover economics: fiscal balance is achieved over time, not in a single year; in flush times a government should run a surplus, but when the economy falters deficits are part of the remedy; when the immediate problem is what it is now–a lack of demand, not a shortage of capital–higher spending is generally more efficacious than lower taxes, especially lower taxes on the rich.

Translation: Barack Obama, the most liberal president in generations, hasn’t been liberal enough. His problem hasn’t been profligacy but frugality. During the last two-and-a-half years, as $3.7 trillion has been added to our national debt, it turns out Obama has spent too little. Despite his efforts to slander and misrepresent the proposals of his opponents, Obama turns out to be too civil, too accommodating, too darn decent. And the man Democrats considered their Great Communicator just three years ago is suffering from a “communications problem,” unable to educate the public to the wisdom of post-Herbert Hoover economics.

This is sheer nonsense, of course. But Hertzberg’s comments are instructive. Rather than take into account the economic (and empirical) failure of Obama’s Keynesian approach, those who take a dogmatic, faith-based approach to American politics engage in intellectual contortions in order to try to innoculate their ideology from damage. People like Hertzberg begin from what is, for them, an unassailable proposition: liberalism is right because it is right and so it can never be wrong. And what happens when, by any objective standard, liberal policies fail? The problem is, they weren’t sufficiently liberal.

There are certain advantages to this approach. Those whose minds are obdurate and canonical –regardless of the philosophy they hold — don’t need to grapple with inconvenient facts. They have a reflexive response to every set of facts that challenges their worldview: ignore the facts. This doesn’t help one ascertain the truth. But it does avoid the hard work of facing up to the false assumptions on which their intellectual structure rests. Call it the comforting life of an ideological fanatic.


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