Monday, July 17, 2006

Is Jonathan Chait Too Shallow to be a Los Angles Times Pundit? No

One difference between a commentator and a pundit is that the former focus on analysis, Michael Barone comes to mind, while a pundit is person of quick and often repetitious views-like Jonathan Chait.

His latest punditry returns to his favorite theme- that the President is stupid. How does he know that? Easy. You look for someone who has proved to be a certified Bush basher, then quote from that person’s latest snide and inaccurate characterizations of the president, and presto! Your point is proven.

Mr. Chait relies on characterizations contained in David Suskind’s new book. The old attacks are dusted off and thrust forward. Bush does not like to read and prefers briefing to policy papers. So what? Presidents differ in how they get information and reading long policy papers has not proved a superior source of policy wisdom, think Jimmy Carter.

What’s new in Suskind’s undocumented assertion that Mr. Bush based his assessment s of the information he was getting his (Bush’s) judgment “on how confident his briefer seemed in what he was saying.” This assertion is not only factual wrong; it is ridiculous.

Most people who make policy recommendations to the president are quite convinced that their analysis is sound and their advice ought to be followed. Washington is literally filled with such persons, which is why an assessment based on the presenter’s confidence would leave the president little based on which to make any choice.

Mr. Bush is well known to reach judgments about people as they debate the issues in front of him. But his judgments are based on how well they have thought through their case, and their ability to provide cogent answers to the questions that are raised about their analysis.

Beyond the cogency of the analysis, it is not the level of their confidence that interests Mr. Bush, but the practicality and feasibility of their suggestions. Mr. Chait derides this as “horse sense,” but practicality and feasibility are crucial elements to consider for any policy decision.

Yes, Mr. Bush has taken large policy risks. Yet these must be understood in the context of assessments about the risk involved in not taking action. Moreover, even when Mr. Bush has taken large risks, as in Iraq, he has been focused on achieving results and what works. In this Mr. Bush is a very unusual president. He is both transformational in what he is trying to accomplish, but keenly interested in what works. Ordinarily presidents who stress the former neglect the latter, and those who stress the latter aren’t ambitious or visionary enough to pursue the former.

The Bush administration has had a number of very strong debates over a range of issues—Iraq, North Korea, Iran and a host of others. They are a function both of the difficulty of the problems, and the fact that the president has chosen to surround himself with knowledgeable, experienced people who are hardly likely to agree on all these difficult matters. But they are also a function of the fact that Bush doesn’t shy away from internal policy debate; he embraces it and learns from it.

This is more than one can say of Mr. Chair, whose punditry is molecule deep, tendentious, and ultimately useless as a guide to understanding the subjects he opinionates on.