No Cigar

David Brooks is getting at something he can’t quite articulate:

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

Republicans developed their own leadership style. If Democratic leaders prized deliberation and self-examination, then Republicans would govern from the gut.

George W. Bush restrained some of the populist excesses of his party — the anti-immigration fervor, the isolationism — but stylistically he fit right in. As Fred Barnes wrote in his book, “Rebel-in-Chief,” Bush “reflects the political views and cultural tastes of the vast majority of Americans who don’t live along the East or West Coast. He’s not a sophisticate and doesn’t spend his discretionary time with sophisticates. As First Lady Laura Bush once said, she and the president didn’t come to Washington to make new friends. And they haven’t.”

Very close, but no cigar. The “intellectuals versus the people” paradigm is convenient shorthand for this newest phase of our ongoing culture war, but my (our?) objection to Bush is not that simple. It’s not that George Bush is a populist or a know-nothing or that the attitudes of “the heartland” (wherever that is) are his own. It’s that his style of leadership constitutes a rejection of introspection, deliberation, and prudence (a bold man might call these conservative values). McCain, sadly, exhibits many of Bush’s worst characteristics. Palin’s aw-shucks approach embodies them. Here, I’ll outsource my analysis to Christopher Buckley (yes, that Christopher Buckley):

But that was—sigh—then. John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, “We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.” This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget “by the end of my first term.” Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?

I’ve read Obama’s books, and they are first-rate. He is that rara avis, the politician who writes his own books. Imagine. He is also a lefty. I am not. I am a small-government conservative who clings tenaciously and old-fashionedly to the idea that one ought to have balanced budgets. On abortion, gay marriage, et al, I’m libertarian. I believe with my sage and epigrammatic friend P.J. O’Rourke that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.

But having a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect, President Obama will (I pray, secularly) surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.

UPDATE: I should also say that I don’t feel there is any contradiction between anti-establishment populism and a belief in prudence, introspection, and dialog. The central rationale for populism is that elites will often calcify into an insular, close-minded establishment. The conservative counter-revolution, for example, was born of a conviction that our liberal managerial class continually ignored serious objections to expanding the modern welfare state. Bush, Palin, and McCain may have adopted the aesthetic and cultural trappings of populism for expediency’s sake, but their actual views are entirely dictated by an obsolete conservative establishment.

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Filed under Conservatism, Presidential Politics

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