Let’s give Jon Meacham the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that the editorial in the current issue of Newsweek—that would be, yes, the one arguing that it would be just all kinds of awesome if Obama were to be challenged in 2012 by Dick Cheney—is not, in fact, the product of a painfully transparent attempt at buzz-building and link-baiting.
Let’s assume instead that a piece of rhetoric whose contrarianism would put even sister-mag Slate to shame is, in fact, a good-faith, intellectually honest attempt to argue that the man who did more than any vice president in U.S. history to expand executive power—all the while, of course, professing the superiority of “small government,” etc., etc.—should, indeed, be given a second run at the White House.
On its face, there’s no real problem with that argument: it is what it is, as they say, and Meacham’s not the first to raise the Draft Cheney trial balloon. And one role of a ‘magazine of ideas’—the kind that Newsweek aspires to be—is, after all, to offer provocative arguments and proffer productive thought experiments and generally play devil’s advocate. (This last, incidentally, being exactly what the latte-drinking liberals whom Meacham cliché-checks in his piece—“The sound you just heard in the background was liberal readers spitting out their lattes”—might accuse Meacham of doing in advocating for Cheney.)
What’s really irksome about Meacham’s piece, however, isn’t the fact that his argument is counterintuitive; it’s that his logic is counterintuitive. Meacham treats his whole thought experiment as just that: a thought experiment. “Far from fading away,” Meacham writes, “Cheney has been the voice of the opposition since the inauguration.”
Wouldn’t it be more productive and even illuminating if he took his arguments out of the realm of punditry and into the arena of electoral politics? Are we more or less secure because of the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Does the former vice president still believe in a connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda? Did the counterterror measures adopted in the aftermath of the attacks go too far? Let’s have the fight and see what the country thinks.
Well, great. Except: since when has “seeing what the country thinks” been the purpose of elections? Sure, voting has a money-where-your-mouth-is quality that polling and other mechanisms for gauging public opinion lack. But then: public opinion is the means, rather than the end, of such exercises. The whole point of a presidential campaign is not to see what’s popular, but to, you know, win the presidency. And the whole point of winning the presidency is to, you know, enact a particular agenda within the proscenium of American democracy.
The whole point, in other words, is action. And outcomes. It may be a truism, but it’s also true: presidential elections are, at their core, about the lives of American citizens. They’re not, finally, about rhetoric; they’re about reality.
In Meacham’s treatment, however, presidential campaigns are, apparently, not so much about making a difference as about making a point. They’re about ideas that can be blissfully extricated from that pesky thing we shorthand as ‘real life.’ Nowhere in the vaguely Miltonian 2012 scenario Meacham lays out as an epic battle between progressive principles and conservative—Obama versus a rejuvenated Cheney, each an allegory incarnate—does the outcome of those ideas (that is: a Cheney presidency versus an Obama second term) make an appearance. Indeed, “whatever the result” of that battle, Meacham writes, “there could be no ambiguity about the will of the people.” But: whatever the result? As if the outcome of the contest itself—the person and the agenda we choose—is some kind of throwaway point?
Meacham’s framing is frustratingly fanciful; the fight in question, per that framing, is about reductive ideology, rather than productive activism. His is a particularly cynical brand of solipsism. While ideas for ideas’ sake may be the ultimate stomping ground for ‘the ultimate thinking man’…it’s the ultimate insult to those who lack the luxury of assuming that ‘whatever the result’ is a viable approach to our politics.
Update: Over at The Kicker, Greg makes a great case for treating the column in question as pure-linkbait—and explains why, even as buzz-fodder, the piece fails.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.