Ross Douthat and Jonathan Rauch

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In his New York Times column from Monday, Ross Douthat argues that President Barack Obama overreached by pushing for comprehensive health care reform. (Mark Oppenheimer profiles the conservative wunderkind in the latest issue of Mother Jones.) Douthat says that liberals should blame their heroes—FDR, for example—for creating a state so large that it’s impossible to reform:

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

That’s a quote from Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working,” a book that should be required reading for Democrats as they contemplate their predicament this week. First published amid the collapse of Clintoncare, and then reissued after the failure of the Gingrich Revolution, Rauch’s analysis makes mincemeat of the popular theory that sinister “special interests” are to blame for derailing reforms the common man wholeheartedly supports.

Instead, he suggests that sweeping reforms are difficult because we’re all special interests, in one sense or another. We all benefit from something (or many things) the government does, and so we all have an incentive to resist dramatic changes to the way Washington spends money.

What’s missing from Douthat’s analysis of Rauch is the fact that on Saturday (two days before Douthat’s column appeared), Rauch offered a guarded endorsement of the Senate’s health care reform bill. “It could be much better,” he says (true), and “there is plenty to worry about,” (also true), but “Taken together, [the bill’s] measures could set in motion a virtuous cycle.” (You can read Rauch’s column and judge for yourself whether that’s true.) On Monday, Douthat took to his blog to note Rauch’s endorsement of the Senate bill. “[I]t’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving,” Douthat wrote. But he didn’t explain why he didn’t mention it in his print column. If the endorsement wasn’t mentioned because Douthat didn’t see it until after his column went to press, then Douthat should say that. If Douthat knew about Rauch’s position but decided not to mention it in print, he should explain why he came around to the idea that “it’s only fair” to mention it.

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