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September 20, 2011

David Brooks Admits: "I'm an Obama Sap"

For once that's not a made-up quote. He admits he's got a real blind spot when it comes to President Impeccably Creased Trousers.

Iím a sap, a specific kind of sap. Iím an Obama Sap.

When the president said the unemployed couldnít wait 14 more months for help and we had to do something right away, I believed him. When administration officials called around saying that the possibility of a double-dip recession was horrifyingly real and that it would be irresponsible not to come up with a package that could pass right away, I believed them.

I liked Obamaís payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course Iím a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.

It recycles ideas that couldnít get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didnít try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.

After hitting the specifics of Obama's non-proposal for a while, he concludes:

The president believes the press corps imposes a false equivalency on American politics. We assign equal blame to both parties for the dysfunctional politics when in reality the Republicans are more rigid and extreme. Thereís a lot of truth to that, but at least Republicans respect Americans enough to tell us what they really think. The White House gives moderates little morsels of hope, and then rips them from our mouths. To be an Obama admirer is to toggle from being uplifted to feeling used.

The White House has decided to wage the campaign as fighting liberals. I guess I understand the choice, but I still believe in the governing style Obama talked about in 2008. I may be the last one. Iím a sap.

David Brooks is a very soft thinker. Although it's nice that he's writing something bad about Obama, this piece says a lot more about him than it does about his intended target.

Why was David Brooks so smitten with Obama? And why is he so disappointed with him now?

He was smitten by Obama's promise to "raise the tone" of debate, to make politics less of a dirty, populist affair and more of a high-minded exchange of wonkish ideas by the denatured, gray intellectual class. And he's disappointed because Obama is repudiating that promise, and unleashing his inner demagogue.

Is an "elevated tone" in politics desirable? I suppose. I wouldn't mind it. Eh, cancel that, I'd welcome it.

However, what priority should this be on anyone's list of wants?

Very high, as David Brooks seems to rank it? Or rather very low, given 1, substantive goals are much more important than what "tone" was employed to achieve those substantive ends, and 2, the "tone" in politics has generally never been terribly elevated so a pining for it is a quixotic self-delusion.

I wrote about this in the update to the Jon Stewart post, noting that this was a fairly trivial goal to dedicate oneself to.

Is it a decent goal? Sure, it's decent. Sure, as someone who is occasionally revolted by cheap demagoguery, I'd like to see less cheap demagoguery (unless I'm the one employing it and it seems effective). Sure, I'd like to see, say, FoxNews strive for a more elevated tone, more like the New York Sun than the New York Post. Sure, it would be nice if politicians spent more time on economic policy and detailed solutions than gotcha opposition research.

A decent goal, but how high exactly should that be on my list of priorities -- especially given, as I've said, that it's never going to happen?

For David Brooks, this abstract goal of having a less uncouth political class, filled with politicians who at least spoke more like himself, with the particular set of manners and restraint of declasse passion of the status-assured, educated old-money Anglo-Saxon aristocracy is of a higher priority than any tangible political policy goal.

Supposedly he's a "conservative," at least on fiscal matters, and ergo should have opposed Obama on those grounds. But for David Brooks, the idea of a man with an impeccably-creased trousers, who spoke with a Bluffer's Guide fluency about Reinhold Niebuhr, who would make our national dialogue possibly sound more like Firing Line than Crossfire, trumped all tangible political goals such as keeping government spending down and limiting government's expansion into new areas which it could screw up.

But no. For David Brooks, a sharp trouser crease trumped a sharp demarcation of the boundary of government intrusiveness.

Consider what this says about David Brooks.

What I mean is this: If this weak, vague, gauzy crap is your greatest concern, what does that say about you?

Well, it says you're a soft-thinker. But apart from such personal attacks, it also says that you're a member of the comfortable upper middle class with virtually no fear of economic dislocation. While you may have opinions about economics, you can afford to prioritize such matters below worries about "tone," because you are altogether immune from economic misery.

Your job is set, guaranteed for life (virtually), with few competitors for it. You're a one-man operation, an employee; your only interaction with the realities of business life is cashing a check, meeting with investment advisers, and occasionally pitching a book to a publisher.

You do not particularly fear a reduction of wages or an increase in taxes, because you're already making as much money as a writer could reasonably expect to make. Plus, there is not (yet) any way to tax the non-pecuniary benefits of your job -- influence, fame, respect, easiness of it all -- which far outstrip the pecuniary ones you have to give the government a piece of.

In short, you are someone whose interest in politics is chiefly a theoretical matter. You have no skin in the game. You can afford to be dispassionate about Obama's $500 billion cut to Medicaid, because in all likelihood you'll be an employed writer into your seventies and will have private insurance and even when retired will have enough money to opt out of the system. You can afford to have an intellectual's distance from Obama's choking regulatory overreach, because your only "business" is writing seven hundred words twice a week; you have no employees, no mandates, no regulations to comply with. You can gamely defend your cultural brother-from-another-mother Obama even as his policies do nothing to decrease (and probably in fact increase) grinding unemployment of levels of misery not seen since the Great Depression, since your job is effectively pink-slip-proof and even the friends you know who've lost their jobs are largely rich and therefore have plenty of cushion for three or four lean years.

In short, you can afford to give Obama a pass on all of his destructive policies, the policies which really hurt regular people who are not so fortunate as to have comfortable, bulletproof berths at the New York Times, and focus laser-like on childish frettings about "tone" and its alleged "elevation" because you're as removed from the vigor and scuffle of the scrum that is the working world as the palest, dottiest tenured professor.

I'll say one thing about union members -- at least they are fighting for something tangible and real. Money in pocket -- can't get much more tangible than that. I don't approve of their agenda of taking from everyone else so that they can have more, but I can at least accept that they're pushing for something real.

And David Brooks?

Still just pining for a president who speaks eloquently of great books and 60s French cinema in a practiced non-regional diction (or a regional diction, if that region is Andover, Massachusetts). The kind of man you'd like to share a beer port with.

Must be nice, to be so nicely ensconced in a cushy berth that you're liberated from all other, more tangible concerns of politics.

And I'm sure it is nice. I don't begrudge him that, exactly.

What I fault him for is his solipsism -- he is incapable of understanding that perhaps he should worry about the concerns of people less well-off a little more, and not agitate relentlessly for a "politics" which, to the extent I can understand it, consists chiefly of concerns about prep school manners.

Can David Brooks step far enough away from his own vantage point -- can he imagine, for a moment -- to realize that most businessmen are more sharply regulated, and are more harassed by the government, than he himself experiences, as part of the very tiny cadre of professional writers?

Does his politics take into account, at all, the notion of the greatest good for the greatest number (and least woe to the rest), or is it all about, and only about, making David Brook feel not-so-embarrassed or so much the outsider at Upper West Side dinner parties?

Politics is personal, the leftists used to say, but isn't this taking things quite too far?

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posted by Ace at 02:28 PM

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