Do They Know What They Don't Know?

Peggy Noonan accurately, I think, describes the situation:

…On Wednesday, in an interview with Politico, Dick Cheney warned of the possible deaths of “perhaps hundreds of thousands” of Americans in a terror attack using nuclear or biological weapons. “I think there is a high probability of such an attempt,” he said.

When the interview broke and was read on the air, I was in a room off a television studio. For a moment everything went silent, and then a makeup woman said to a guest, “I don’t see how anyone can think that’s not true.”

I told her I’m certain it is true. And it didn’t seem to me any of the half dozen others there found the content of Cheney’s message surprising. They got a grim or preoccupied look.

The question for the Obama administration: Do they think Mr. Cheney is essentially correct, that bad men are coming with evil and deadly intent, but that America can afford to, must for moral reasons, change its stance regarding interrogation and detention of terrorists? Or, deep down, do the president and those around him think Mr. Cheney is wrong, that people who make such warnings are hyping the threat for political purposes? And, therefore, that interrogation techniques, etc., can of course be relaxed? I don’t know the precise answer to this question. Do they know exactly what they think? Or are they reading raw threat files each day trying to figure out what they think?

The bad thing about new political eras is that everyone within them has to learn everything for the first time. Every new president starts out fresh, in part because he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Ignorance keeps you perky.

On the economy, I continue to find no one, Democrat or Republican, who has faith that the stimulus bill passed by the House will solve anything or make anything better, though many argue that doing absolutely nothing will surely make things worse by not promising at least the possibility of improvement through action.

Meanwhile, the inquest on President Obama’s great stimulus mistake continues.

His serious and consequential policy mistake is that he put his prestige behind not a new way of breaking through but an old way of staying put. This marked a dreadful misreading of the moment. And now he’s digging in. His political mistake, which in retrospect we will see as huge, is that he remoralized the Republicans. He let them back in the game.

Mr. Obama has a talent for reviving his enemies. He did it with Hillary Clinton, who almost beat him after his early wins, and who was given the State Department. He has now done it with Republicans on the Hill. This is very nice of him, but not in his interests. Mr. Obama should have written the stimulus bill side by side with Republicans, picked them off, co-opted their views. Did he not understand their weakness? They had no real position from which to oppose high and wasteful spending, having backed eight years of it with nary a peep. They started the struggle over the stimulus bill at a real disadvantage. Then four things: Nancy Pelosi served up old-style pork, Mr. Obama swallowed it, Republicans shocked themselves by being serious, and then they startled themselves by being unified. But it was their seriousness that was most important: They didn’t know they were! They hadn’t been in years!

One senses in a new way the disaster that is Nancy Pelosi. She was all right as leader of the opposition in the Bush era, opposition being joyful and she being by nature chipper. She is tough, experienced, and of course only two years ago she was a breakthrough figure, the first female speaker. But her public comments are often quite mad—we’re losing 500 million jobs a month; here’s some fresh insight on Catholic doctrine—and in a crisis demanding of creativity, depth and the long view, she seems more than ever a mere ward heeler, a hack, a pol. She’s not big enough for the age, is she? She’s not up to it.

Whatever happens in the Senate, Republicans have to some degree already won. They should not revert to the triumphalism of the Bush era, when they often got giddy and thick-necked and spiked the ball. They should “act like they been there before.” They should begin to seize back the talking mantle from the president. And—most important—they must stay serious.

The national conversation on the economy is frozen, and has been for a while. Republicans say tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts. Democrats say spend, new programs, more money. You can’t spend enough for the Democratic base, or cut taxes enough for the Republican. But in a time when all the grown-ups of America know spending is going to bankrupt us and tax cuts without spending cuts is more of the medicine that’s killing us, the same old arguments, which sound less like arguments than compulsive tics, only add to the public sense that no one is in charge.

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