The David Brooks column everyone is talking about is, I think, one of the best examples of the Republican Party’s unwillingness to grapple with the Iraq War and its aftermath. The impending intra-party fight Brooks describes centers on social and economic policy, with nary a mention of the war or foreign affairs. As an Iraq hawk, I suppose Brooks has something of an incentive to downplay foreign policy disagreements, but I also think this emphasis reflects a broader political reality: the failure of the Iraq War has not seriously damaged Republicans’ long-term political prospects. Which is a shame, because despite all the hemming and hawing about Bush’s domestic spending, the Iraq debacle is by far his biggest failure.
Tag Archives: David Brooks
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.
Helpful hints to increase the chances of being taken seriously the next time Something Really Bad happens
David Brooks is angry:
And let us recognize above all the 228 who voted no — the authors of this revolt of the nihilists. They showed the world how much they detest their own leaders and the collected expertise of the Treasury and Fed. They did the momentarily popular thing, and if the country slides into a deep recession, they will have the time and leisure to watch public opinion shift against them.
I have my own doubts about the opposition’s nobility of purpose, but is Brooks really prepared to argue that people like Marcy Kaptur didn’t have serious concerns about the bailout’s feasibility? Or do we now equate nihilism with a suspicion of hastily-conceived billion-dollar giveaways? With that in mind, here are a couple of useful tips for reducing the establishment’s credibility gap the next time we’re faced with a crisis:
1.) Per Daniel Larison, don’t repeatedly cry wolf and then expect us to take you seriously. After nearly eight years of fruitless warfare, amber alerts, indefinite detention, and incompetent management, we’re all a lot less likely to give any administration the benefit of the doubt (see also Andrew Sullivan’s latest column):
Even if the warnings of disaster were exaggerated, as I think they were and are, it can only further sap confidence in government that the nation’s political leadership and top technocrats bungled their handling of another vital issue. Populist backlash can stop poor legislation, but populists are still in no position to replace failed authorities, which suggests such a deep rift between the government and the public that the government cannot expect consent for anything controversial and the public has no faith in government promises.
For much of the time this rift goes unnoticed, but when the government needs to tap into a reserve of public trust — and wield moral authority for what it claims is necessary action in a crisis — it finds itself burdened instead by the toxic assets of all its past abuses of trust and power.
2.) Make the process more accountable and transparent. I’ll outsource this one to Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings (emphasis mine):
However strong the arguments for some sort of economic intervention might be, Greenwald nails all the problems with the way this has unfolded in the past few weeks. There may very well be some Ideal Platonic Bailout Bill that is right and proper and produces rainbows and puppies and punishes the wicked while protecting the innocent but deceived. The process we’ve seen over the past few weeks seems exceedingly unlikely to deliver anything remotely close to that.
UPDATE: But wait – this time the government’s diagnosis of the problem was absolutely correct the sky still hasn’t fallen! And to think some of us blithely assumed the administration couldn’t possibly do more to undermine its own credibility . . .
UPDATE II: In fairness, I should also note that economic hysteria is a bipartisan affair.
David Brooks has another McCain op-ed up, and it’s a doozy. His introduction:
I think first of the personal qualities. He was an unfailingly candid man. When other politicians described a meeting, they always ended up the heroes of the story. But McCain would always describe the meeting straight, emphasizing his own failings with more vigor than his accomplishments.
He is, for a politician, a humble man. The most important legacy of his prisoner-of-war days is that he witnessed others behaving more heroically than he did. This experience has given him a basic honesty when appraising himself.
I don’t begrudge Brooks his personal affection for McCain, but does he really have to impose a long-form character reference on the rest of us? I’m not mortally offended by McCain’s recent spate of misleading advertisements – politics, as they say, ain’t beanbag – but surely his choice of campaign tactics also says something about the man’s character. As a friend and confidant, everything I’ve heard about McCain suggests he’d be first-rate, but when it comes to politics he certainly knows how to take the gloves off.
I’m also not sure what the rest of us are supposed to take from this sort of column. Is David Brooks’ personal testimonial sufficient to sway my vote? No, nor should it be. Brooks himself is forced to fall back on McCain’s experience and independence after he admits the candidate’s ideology is borderline incoherent. Candidate McCain is quite different from the McCain who romanced Brooks and every other op-ed columnist circa 2000, and Candidate McCain is who I’m forced to evaluate on the merits. So far, he hasn’t impressed.