After deciding it no longer wanted William Kristol to fill its pages with strategy memos for Sarah Palin and other rising stars on the right, The New York Times has added The Atlantic'sRoss Douthat to its stable of op-ed columnists. As I noted in this article for The Nation a year ago, Douthat belongs to a small circle of conservative commentators who understand that the marriage between economic and social conservatism that was stitched together during the Reagan years is unraveling. A party that claims to be "pro-family" but opposes doing anything to help parents deal with the crushing burdens of health care, job insecurity and housing foreclosures is going to marginalize itself, Douthat has been telling his comrades on the right for a while now. Although I don't share his views, particularly on social issues, I agree with my colleague Chris Hayes that, for this and many other reasons, Douthat will likely churn out thoughtful commentary of the sort that Kristol did not.
So what's the problem with this hire? The problem is that it will not give readers of The Times any clue what most Republicans today – certainly those holding the reins of power – actually think. America's preeminent newspaper will now have two conservatives (David Brooks is the other) chiming in to argue that government isn't always evil, that tax cuts aren't always good, that something really does need to be done about health care, that markets aren't always wonderfully virtuous, and so on. This will make it a lot easier for progressives to put down their coffee in the morning without feeling queasy. It will also make it that much easier for conservatives to argue - accurately - that The Times is out-of-touch with their beliefs. The conservative strand of economic populism that Douthat champions persuaded exactly zero House Republicans to support the recent stimulus bill. Given this, a bolder move would have been to hire an unrepentant libertarian who, in the face of the worst market meltdown since the Great Depression, could explain to the rest of us why unregulated capitalism is still the ideology of choice in the GOP.