Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ideologues, Pragmatists and Machiavellians

Pundits have lately been paying a lot of attention to Rahm Emanuel’s standing within the Obama administration. Smart liberals like Michael Tomasky are losing patience with his zeal to subordinate ideology to practicality:

“Obama needs an Emanuel-like figure around him. And he needs operate within political limits, at times. But at other times, he needs to do the right thing and not worry about what Lindsey Graham is going to say. Leaks like those in this article establish a narrative in which the right thing is by definition the naïve thing. That may be good for a certain category of Washington conventional-wisdom arbiter, but it isn't good for the country.”
Smart conservatives like Jonah Goldberg see the administration’s failure to heed Emanuel’s advice as proof of its liberal naiveté:
“the real reason the Milbank column has enraged so many left-wing bloggers and liberal columnists is that Emanuel’s understanding of the political landscape puts him in the reality-based community. And that is a community the Obama cult refuses to join.”
Such observations exemplify how conventional political wisdom is generated by the application of stereotypes. Pundits turn presidential administrations into melodramas with stock characters. Two familiar character-types figure crucially in Tomasky’s and Goldberg’s analyses:

The ideologue is indisposed to compromise with the political opposition in deference to controversial standards of political morality or sound public administration. His ideological comrades tend to think he’s admirably principled. His ideological opponents tend to regard him as being regrettably doctrinaire.

The pragmatist is unwilling to let doctrinal perfection be the enemy of good, but uninspired, policy. When they’re feeling irritable, his more doctrinaire ideological comrades are apt to disparage him as a cynical opportunist.  His political opponents are grudgingly impressed by his realism.

It’s noteworthy that we’re hearing nothing about a third stereotype in recent discussions of Emanuel, viz., the Machiavellian. His commitment to core values is as unconditional as the ideologue’s, but his more refined sense of their relative urgency makes him less equivocal than the ideologue when it comes to trading one valued objective off against another. That enables him to combine the pragmatist’s flexibility as to means with the ideologues’ unswerving commitment to ultimate ends. Machiavellians tend to be revered by their ideological comrades and demonized by their ideological components.

Every administration has a mix of ideologues and pragmatists: The G.H.W. Bush administration had Jack Kemp and James Baker, the Clinton Administration had Robert Reich and Robert Rubin. That neither of those administrations contained a prominent Machiavellian was a sign of their ideological timidity.

It testifies to the much greater ideological ambition of George W. Bush’s administration that it gave such prominent roles to genuine Machiavellians like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. It needed to give them a relatively free hand if it was going to commit generations of Americans to the prosecution of an unprecedented War on Terror and march the country toward an ownership society with privatized social security, healthcare financed largely though health savings accounts, no estate tax, etc. Cheney and Rove’s influence receded as those ideological ambitions were thwarted in Bush’s second term.

We’ve seen something like that eight-year process telescoped into a single year during Obama’s administration. When he was cautioning liberals soon after Obama’s inauguration never to let a good crisis go to waste, Emanuel was auditioning for the role of Machiavellian-in-chief in an administration determined to complete the work of the New Deal and the Great Society. This terrific article by Noam Scheiber recounts how Emanuel aspired to fill that role by doing whatever it took to push comprehensive healthcare reform through by August of the administration's first year.

Now, alas, Emanuel has been reduced to staking his claim to being Obama’s pragmatist-in-chief. That’s bad news for him, and worse news for liberals.

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