Hug Me, I’m a Heretic
For pundits, why it pays to play the heretic.
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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.