The Corner

Arguments V Policies

Matt Yglesias notes that Ramesh and I are (and others) are peeved with the failure of the GOP to make solid arguments. He then writes:

I think this focus on arguments is off-base. It’s not that the Bush team has trouble putting together coherent conservative arguments, they don’t put forward conservative coherent policies or, indeed, real policies at all. On the domestic front (as Paul O’Neill and others have told us) opportunism triumphs above all else while on foreign policy (except for a brief moment in Spring 2003 when Colin Powell was in a fit of personal pique against Dominique de Villepin) you have division, confusion, and drift. There simply aren’t any arguments to be mounted in favor of the combination of tax cuts and entitlement expansions, or free trade agreements and shrimp tariffs and all the rest that we’ve seen from this administration.

Me: I think Yglesias is largely correct about a lot of that. But I think he misunderstands the importance of arguments. The need to make arguments creates consistency, not the other way around. Indeed, in a democracy it is folly to believe there is or can be serious separation between policies and the arguments for or against them. When crafting policy, someone should ask “How are we going to defend (or sell) this?” And if the answer comes up “we can’t.” Then they should sit back down, brew a fresh pot of coffee and keep noodling until they come up with the answer or a new policy. The answer needn’t be consistent with previous answers — though that’s always nice — but it must be consistent within itself. (And there are times when secrecy is necessary, but they should be very rare and very obvious).

There’s a lot I do not buy in the current liberal meme about the White House being closed to contrary opinions, but there’s a core truth to the criticism that the White House has not seemed overly concerned with convincing people it’s right. And once you lose that concern you lose an important discipline which allows you to stay right (and be Right).

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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