Hug Me, I’m a Heretic

For pundits, why it pays to play the heretic.

Norman Ornstein isn’t a conservative, but people want him to play one on TV

The column has been tweeted more than 2,400 times. More than 100,000 people have clicked a tiny, omnipresent “f” and shared it on Facebook. The Washington Post’s comment widget, groaning under the pressure, stopped counting the number of new scrawls at 5,000. The title of this op-ed blockbuster, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, is “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” You see why it was popular.

Ornstein is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mann is at the Brookings Institution. The two think tanks, both embedded near Washington, D.C.’s Dupont circle, can be described, roughly, as right-wing and left-wing. And so ThinkProgress gave the “conservative American Enterprise Institute” partial credit for the column, as did the Detroit News, as did the Vermont Times Argus. Newser slapped on the headline “Conservative Think Tank: Mess is the GOP’s Fault.” That was the story—not that Republicans were criticized, but that they were criticized by a conservative. That meant that it mattered.

But some of the Facebook-sharers were played for simps. Ornstein doesn’t pretend to be a conservative movement, Republican scholar. “He’s as conservative a Democrat as there’s ever been,” suggests his friend David Frum. Back when Al Franken had a radio show, Ornstein would come on to talk politics and find areas of agreement. Franken would play him in with a Bruce Springsteen song for which he’d written new lyrics: Noooooorm in the U.S.A.! Nooooooorm in the U.S.A.!

“Ornstein’s an intellectual,” says Citizens United president David Bossie. “He’s a guy who’s never been part of the conservative movement, and he’s never been part of the conservative establishment or organizations on any policy.”

So he’s not a conservative, but people want him to play one on TV. There is an Apostate Factor in punditry, a multiplying effect powerful enough to turn any opinion into a newsy opinion. The schematic:

Step 1: Become associated with a party or a movement.
Step 2: Criticize said party or movement.
Step 3: Repeat.

How long can you keep it up? I’ve wondered about this, and I don’t think it’s about timing. It’s about scale. You can dine out on your old party affiliation indefinitely if you keep it classy—sticking to books, op-eds, official-looking chin-stroking. If you make a giant production out of your apostasy, your credit burns right up.

Let’s point our magnifying glasses at three examples.

Zell Miller: Effective apostasy period: 2003-04. Miller, a former governor of Georgia, took over a Senate seat after its Republican occupant died of a cerebral hemorrhage.* Starting in 2003, after his state’s Democrats were obliterated, Miller was ready and willing to add his official Democratic voice to whatever Republican attack needed the oomph. The 9/11 commission was “unpatriotic”; John Kerry would disassemble America’s military defenses cog-by-cog. “Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending!” howled Miller at the 2004 Republican National Convention. In three years, he wrote two books on the premise that no sane person who cared for America’s soul could ever vote for Democrats.

But he became a has-been, fast. His mistake: For the media’s purposes, if you endorse the other party’s candidate, you’ve joined the other party. Miller’s retirement gig as a Fox News contributor petered out as the Democrats took over Congress in 2006.

Bruce Bartlett. Effective apostasy period: 2005-present. In his mid-20s, Bartlett was working for Rep. Ron Paul. In his 30s, he worked for the Heritage Foundation and for Ronald Reagan’s White House. His rebel life began in 2005, when his think-tank superiors read the manuscript of his book about George W. Bush’s betrayal of the movement. The think tankers sided with Bush. He was freed, in a way, to become a conservative critic of conservatives, the inspiration for headlines like “Former Reagan Official: Rick Perry’s an Idiot.”

“I seldom say anything supportive of Obama or the Democratic Party or their agenda,” says Bartlett. “I mostly criticize those on the right for stupidity, mendacity, sloppy thinking, lying, putting party, and tribal loyalty above truth, etc. For this, those on the right lump me in with the left as if there is no difference between being a critic of the right and being a member of the left.” He criticizes both sides. That gives him an endless supply of credit when he needs to hit Republicans.

Pat Caddell. Effective apostasy period: 1988-present. He was one of the Democratic Party’s best-known strategists for a decade, polling for four presidential campaigns—one of them actually successful. In 1988 he pulled away from the Democratic firm he worked for and nearly quit politics. But—and this is the key to apostate success—reporters knew where to find him when they needed quotes. By summer he was telling the Los Angeles Times that Michael Dukakis, his party’s eventual nominee, “doesn’t have anything to say.”

For the past decade he’s been a reliable “Democratic” voice on Fox News, where his often-wrong judgment of his old party is always, always framed as the righteous indignation of the true believer. When he filed a column about Barack Obama’s weakness or unelectability or “overly partisan” nature, he is bylined as “a pollster for President Jimmy Carter.” This is because when modern Democrats hire him, they have to fire him after he calls union members “thugs” or agrees too vigorously with David Horowitz.

Why does any of this matter? The Mann/Ornstein thesis isn’t actually new. In the column, and in the accompanying book (It’s Even Worse Than It Looks), they make the sort of points that columnists like Ezra Klein or James Fallows make about Washington: People, we can’t get anything done because these Republicans won’t raise any revenue. But that’s an argument that makes the Democrats look like put-upon do-gooders. Thus, it’s partisan. Thus, nobody wants to hear it unless there’s an apostate in charge of the mic-check.

Mann/Ornstein figured this out. “A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality,” they wrote. “If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.” Do we really have to sit and wait for the apostates to point that out?

*Correction, May 1, 2012: This article originally stated that former Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia died in a plane crash.