Positing the “underpants gnomes theory of punditry” (UPDATED)

Way back in 2006, Matt Yglesias formulated the “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” (can’t find his original, but go here instead), which he applied to a number of pundits who seemed to believe that the only thing preventing Iraq from being a smashing success was a lack of will on America’s part. Named after the comic book superhero corps who wear green rings that channel their willpower into actual power, it neatly captured the notion that, while Iraq had been a total clusterfuck up to whenever any particular pundit was opining about it, all America needed to do was Stay the Course and it would emerge triumphant (see also: Friedman Unit).

More recently, the Green Lantern Theory has been extended to cover presidential power. This principle probably made its first appearance during the health care reform debate, when voices on the Left were critical of President Obama for not trying hard enough to get single-payer/a public option/whatever into the reform and more moderate voices accused the Lefties of being Green Lanternists and ignoring that none of those things had a chance of passing in Congress. It gets trudged out periodically to respond to Lefty critics of the president when they make what are probably unfair claims about the limits of presidential power.

Lately Green Lanternism has been employed to a more distasteful life-form, the DC Centrist Hack Pundit, which finds itself outraged at the Lack of Something Being Done in Washington and, without actually bothering with details, argues that all the president needs to do to overcome institutional and systemic obstructionism on the part of Republicans in Congress is to Want it More, or possibly Lead, Dammit. To wit, we have the New York Goddamn Times arguing that gun control legislation didn’t pass because he Didn’t Twist Enough Arms. And then there’s Maureen Dowd, about whom the less said, the better. David Ignatius wrote a piece in the Washington Post over sequestration that suggested the president solve the problem (the problem being, as Ignatius actually admitted, that Republicans wouldn’t pass anything), by “provid[ing] the presidential leadership that guides Congress and the country toward fiscal stability. In my [Republicans as drunk drivers] analogy, he should take the steering wheel firmly in hand and drive the car toward the destination where most maps show we need to be heading.” If you can figure out what the hell that means, you’ve got me beat. Other favorite ideas that the Centrist Hack has for the president include Using the Bully Pulpit, Have a Drink (Lunch, Beer, whatever) with Congress, Be Like Tip and Ronnie, and Appear Strong (or its relative, Don’t Appear Weak). These are all refreshingly free of any actual things the president could do to overcome Republican obstructionism, but they fill column inches and make Very Serious People nod their Very Serious Heads in agreement.

I believe that there is a second theory that can be equally applied to the DC Centrist Hack Pundit, as well as to its cousin the Wall Street Sycophant “Journalist”: The Underpants Gnome Theory of Punditry.

I assume people are familiar with the Underpants Gnomes, from South Park. They steal underpants and hope to profit from them, somehow. Their business model is:

  1. Steal underpants
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

This model has been applied to politicians who have some bizarre ideas about how to right the economy, and to lefties who wanted to sink the PPACA under the probably mistaken assumption that Something Better would immediately rise to take its place, but I haven’t seen it applied to the Centrist Hack, who wants Leadership, Dammit, but doesn’t seem to particularly have fleshed out how that Leadership might accomplish anything. It’s all process and appearance to the Centrist Hack, no substance.

This is where the Centrist Hack and the Lefty Critic part ways, because while Lefty criticisms of the president may include an unrealistic sense of presidential power, they also generally include some specific policy or policies that the Lefty Critic wants to see implemented to achieve a particular outcome. The Centrist Hack, typically, doesn’t know what it wants the president to actually do, it just knows that he’s not doing it, and it doesn’t really care about the actual policy outcome other than that there be one. The Wall Street Sycophant thinks it knows what it wants, for The Economy to Be Strong, but also doesn’t particularly seem to know or care how that might be achieved as long as Government Gets the Hell Out of the Way.

Ron Fournier, of the National Journal, is probably the country’s greatest expert on the power of the president to do whatever he wants if he just Leads, Dammit. He’s written about it at length, in such gems as “You May Be Right, Mr. President, But This Is Crazy,” wherein Ron explained that even though the President had, indeed, gone farther toward a budget compromise than the GOP, it was still his fault that no deal had been reached because Leadership. He has argued that the president should make nihilist Congressional Republicans, who have no incentive to nor interest in reaching a compromise with him, do what he wants anyway, just like Virginia Governor Ultrasound McConnell did when he passed a transportation bill that lots of Democrats in the VA Assembly supported. Now he’s lamenting that the president looks weak for telling the truth (no, seriously! “Even if you concede to Obama every point of his Tuesday news conference, a president looks weak and defeated when he shifts accountability to forces out of his control”) and torturing enhanced interrogating sports analogies to death, applying them to the problem of overcoming complete Congressional obstruction:

Obama needs a coach to look him in the eyes and say, “Mr. President, I’m not excusing the other team. They suck. But you need to beat them, sir. That’s your job, because if you can’t stop them, we lose. And there’s no excuse to losing to such a lousy-bleeping team.”

That’s how it works in the sports pages.

If none of this makes any sense to you, that’s probably the point.

But notice what’s missing from all of this; any actual suggestion of a path forward that would channel all this Leadership into actual policy outcomes. Fournier’s model is:

  1. President leads
  2. ???
  3. Success!

but what “success” looks like, or how leadership will get there? He’s got nothing. How do I know that? Because he’s said so:

Which side’s approach to averting the sequester, and solving the deficit, (do I) actually agree with? I honestly don’t have a strong opinion. Like most independent voters, I just want it fixed. I want my leaders to lead.

First of all, I question whether “most independent voters” would actually agree that they don’t care what gets done, as long as it’s Something. They’re probably not that insipid. Most of them probably have opinions about stuff beyond DO SOMETHING DAMN YOU. Fournier thinks that “how it works in the sports pages” is how it should work in politics because, for the Centrist Hack, politics is a game, and he’s got nothing invested in the outcome of that game beyond retaining some basic sense that The System is working, which for him simply means that elected leaders are Doing Something, and somehow he thinks that if the president just Leads harder at people, Something will get Done. This is completely content free, but practically writes itself, so he goes with it.

**UPDATE: Actually, if you really want to get meta, let’s start with Fournier’s assertion, with no supporting argument behind it that “the deficit” needs to be “solved” right now. The deficit is shrinking, and, lo and behold, at a time when we’re dealing with ~7% unemployment (via the measure that always underestimates the degree of the problem), that decrease is actually a pretty bad thing. But there’s no wiggle room in Fournier’s column about whether or not the deficit even is a problem right now. So really, Fournier hasn’t got any opinions except for the ones he has that he pretends are just objective facts.**

Related to the Centrist Hack is the Wall Street Sycophant, personified here by CNBC’s Rick Santelli, who wants The Economy To Be Fixed by Government Getting Out Of The Way. How will Government Getting Out Of The Way fix the economy, you ask? Santelli’s not talking, because he’s got no idea. He knows what he wants to be done and what he wants the outcome to be, but he hasn’t got the first clue whether what he wants to be done will actually lead to that outcome. Even better, he’s got no idea what impact Getting Government Out of the Way will have on People Who Are Not Rick Santelli, and he clearly isn’t interested in figuring it out. He makes up for not having a clue, and generally being a sociopath, by shouting real loud and talking over everybody. His model:

  1. Government gets out of the way
  2. ???
  3. The economy is fixed!

Underpants Gnomism to the core.

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