Free Minds & Free Markets

The Radical Incrementalist

Award-winning journalist Jonathan Rauch on the need for--and impossibility of--reducing the size and scope of government.

Few political journalists command as much respect, admiration, and recognition among their peers as Jonathan Rauch, a senior writer and columnist for National Journal magazine in Washington, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and a regular presence at Reason Online. Born in Phoenix in 1960, he is the author of a string of highly praised and provocative books including Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America (2004), Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government (1994), and Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (1993).

In 2005, Rauch took home a National Magazine Award, the industry's highest honor, for his National Journal column, "Social Studies." His writings, reads the prize commendation, are "reasoned, heartfelt and persuasive even at their most contrarian, they bring Washington's policy debates to life."

Such compliments grossly understate not only the value of Rauch's analysis but the punch of his prose. In a world in which political discourse tends to veer from insane overstatement (think Ann Coulter) to plodding conventionalism (David Broder) to barely disguised partisanship (Paul Krugman), Rauch's independence of thought is incredibly rare. Whatever the topic, he consistently engages (and typically dismantles) the conventional wisdom. In a recent National Journal piece on global warming, for instance, he argues, "climate change is real and deserves action, but...the problem is nowhere near as overwhelming as the rhetoric commonly suggests, and the solutions nowhere near as difficult. As problems go, in fact, climate change appears to be one of the most convenient that humankind has ever faced."

Equally prized--and equally rare--is his dedication to digging out the facts, presenting them fairly, and then walking his readers through his analysis. Journalism, he argues, should be "fact-driven." If there's a contemporary trend he despises, it's "the idea that the journalist and the journalist's attitude should be front and center....[New York Times' columnist] Maureen Dowd is very good at what she does. But the problem is that lots of people who aren't any good at it think this is journalism."

Rauch, whose work is archived here, has written about a dizzying array of topics, ranging from introversion to bodybuilding to Japanese economic policy. He writes regularly--and always forcefully--about how government grows and grows and grows--and about the benefits of a society that defends free expression and unfettered inquiry, no matter how upsetting that process may be. The United States, says Rauch, "has always been an open society relative to the rest of the world. Compared to the rest of the world, we've always been a market leader in harnessing the power of the open society and decentralized solutions and individual and family initiatives to solve problems."

No doctrinaire libertarian, Rauch's thought nonetheless is deeply rooted in the classical liberal tradition. The particular appeal of America, he says, "has a lot to do with this being a society that's creedal rather than ethnic fundamentally and that the creed is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

In February, Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie talked with Rauch about the 2008 presidential race, the Iraq War, the state of contemporary journalism, and more.

reason: You participated in our February cover package about the "long-awaited, much-anticipated return of gridlock" in the federal government, writing, "Divided government is back, and with it the check on ideological excess and political machine building that has been lacking for four wretched years. Both parties do better when each is watched and checked by the other." Do you feel confident that both parties will do better now?

Jonathan Rauch: Confident would be putting it too strongly (laughs). If I've learned anything in 25 years in Washington, it's that you should never be confident about predictions because you know only that you'll be proven wrong. But that said, yeah, it's already better.

Congress passed the pay-as-you-go rule, so that's a substantive improvement right there. That's going to really bite into spending, though [officials] haven't quite figured that out yet. By 2008-2009, that's really going to put Congress's back to the wall. Second, on Iraq, with the Democrats now sending signals that they're out of patience, that's already having a salutary effect on the government of Iraq. The bad cop has entered the room. It's now clear to [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki that he's really only got one more chance. There are now actually stakes for failure over there. That doesn't mean that the venture will succeed but I think that Democrats have already played a very positive role and, in fact, almost perversely helped give Bush a last shot at least some possibility of success when otherwise it would've had zero.

reason: What do you think will be the three top issues in the 2008 presidential race?

Rauch: No. 1, Iraq. No. 2, Iraq. No. 3, probably either Iraq or Iraq. It may be Iraq.

It's looks like a pretty foreign policy-dominated period, but you never know. We might get some kind of interesting reform through. It might be immigration. It might be taxes. The dark horse is that a reformist farm bill might happen and that would be really interesting and worth doing.

reason: You're rare among journalists that you admit it when your analyses don't pan out. In December 2005, you wrote that the pullout from Iraq had already begun. "So, by spring [2006], if not earlier, Bush will announce that progress in Iraq allows U.S. forces to start coming home," you argued. "He will say that an American drawdown is the best way to help the Iraqis stand on their own. He will argue, much as he did with his tax cuts, that whatever pace he sets is precisely the right pace, and that withdrawing any faster or slower would be the height of irresponsibility. He may also say that withdrawing is 'not a formula for getting out of [the region], but one that provided the only sound basis for America's staying in and continuing to play a responsible role.'" Your conclusion was a great kicker: "Those were the words of Richard Nixon, who, somewhere, is wanly smiling."

Two questions for you: What went wrong with that prediction? It seemed absolutely accurate and prescient to me at the time--of course Bush would realize the need to get out, especially well before the midterm elections. So what happened that changed in Bush's calculus? And perhaps more important for our purposes here: As a journalist, how do you deal with predictions or stories that go wrong? How do you address that in your work?

Rauch: I can tell you more about the second question first. Yeah, that was a brilliant column. Too bad it was completely wrong. Other than that, it was a brilliant column and by blogosphere standards, that's I suppose the end of the story. I honestly thought that Bush would look at the prospect of losing one or both houses of Congress and decide that he just didn't want that and that it would be better to get on the right side of the voters on this issue by getting some form of withdrawal. My guess-it's only a guess, it's not based on any inside information-my guess is that Karl Rove saw this coming and did not want this to happen. What I misunderstood is that not long after I wrote that column, the White House had already crossed the bridge into saying, We're going to take our lumps on the election, we're staying, and that's that. We will not hear any arguments to the contrary. I clearly underestimated Bush's determination to stay on the course.

Everybody makes [mistakes]; it's par for the course. What I have learned is not to be too sure I'm right. The world is much more surprising than we give it credit for. That's part of my political philosophy, my philosophy of life. That's really fundamental to it: Trial and error is really the only thing in life that works ultimately over the long term. Journalism is like that, too, so we need to be honest about our mistakes. We often aren't enough. Everybody makes mistakes. And we need to be a little bit cautious about making predictions.

reason: What do you think about the state of political reporting these days?

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