Politics & Policy

Op-Ed Shoving Match

And David Brooks shoves back hard.

Paul Krugman took a hiatus from his New York Times column in order to jump to the paper’s best-seller list with his book, The Great Unraveling. He’s been all over the tube with his story that the Bush administration represents (as he says in his book) a “revolutionary power” like the “totalitarian regimes of the 1930s,” one that wants to create an America “possibly — in which elections are only a formality.”

About the only TV show where he hasn’t peddled this paranoid shtick is Saturday Night Live. He even showed up on Buchanan & Press, although Pat Buchanan hounded him into stammering helplessness (with a little coaching from yours truly). It got to the point where all Krugman could say was, “Well, all right. Let’s — you know, I thought we were going to have a discussion here.” That’s media code for “Hey, you said I’d get to promote my book!”

Today, after a two-week absence, Krugman’s column is back on the op-ed page of the Times. It’s his usual verbal carpet-bombing of innuendo, distortion, and assertion presented as fact — delivered with supreme self-assurance and just enough truth here and there to make it devastatingly effective. Bush lied. Bush is corrupt. Halliburton. Quagmire. Bush lied … you get it.

Same old stuff. But today there’s something different, too. Something quite wonderful.

It seems that while Krugman was busy promoting himself and his paranoid anti-Bush vision, David Brooks — the Times’s new conservative op-ed columnist who started just three weeks ago — got mad as hell and decided he wasn’t going to take it any more.

Right next to Krugman’s latest screed is a column by Brooks that is nothing less than a literary cruise missile aimed straight at Krugman’s heart. Of course he doesn’t mention Krugman by name. The Times would never let him. But he doesn’t have to (it’s even classier that way). But the intent is unmistakable. And it’s deadly.

Brooks’s column is called “The Presidency Wars.” In it he noted that the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s have given way to bitter, hateful combat over the very legitimacy of the president. Brooks wrote,

The culture wars produced some intellectually serious books because there were principles involved. The presidency wars produce mostly terrible ones because the hatreds have left the animating ideas far behind and now romp about on their own … now the best-sellers lists are dotted with screeds against the president and his supporters. A cascade of Clinton-bashing books hit the lists in the 1990′s, and now in the Bush years we’ve got “Shrub,” “Stupid White Men” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

And — it goes (literally) without saying — The Great Unraveling. “Terrible.” Brooks has Krugman’s MO down cold:

The quintessential new warrior scans the Web for confirmation of the president’s villainy. He avoids facts that might complicate his hatred. He doesn’t weigh the sins of his friends against the sins of his enemies. But about the president he will believe anything. He believes Ted Kennedy when he says the Iraq war was a fraud cooked up in Texas to benefit the Republicans politically. It feels so delicious to believe it, and even if somewhere in his mind he knows it doesn’t quite square with the evidence, it’s important to believe it because the other side is vicious, so he must be too … The warriors have one other feature: ignorance. They have as much firsthand knowledge of their enemies as members of the K.K.K. had of the N.A.A.C.P. In fact, most people in the last two administrations were well-intentioned patriots doing the best they could. The core threat to democracy is not in the White House, it’s the haters themselves.

I have to admit that, until now, I have been very disappointed with Brooks. I worried whether he would have the guts to make a difference at the liberal Times (see “Is Brooks Partisan Enough?” August 14, 2003). His first couple columns were, well, terrible. The inaugural one asserted that the Bush administration pretends in public to be infallible, but nevertheless adapts to criticism — sounds innocuous enough, but it came off as a variation on the “Bush lied” theme. Several days later a Krugman column sideswiped Brooks by using his own logic to turn his mild criticism into a scorcher. Krugman wrote,

… I disagree with those who think the administration can claim infallibility even while practicing policy flexibility: on major issues, such as taxes or Iraq, any sensible policy would too obviously be an implicit admission that previous policies had failed.

And thus the op-ed shoving match was started. And now Brooks is shoving back hard. It’s something I doubt the typically non-confrontational Brooks would have done in the normal course of sharing a page with Krugman. But when Krugman stepped off the op-ed page for a while, and recreated himself as a media celebrity with a paranoid neo-Nazi conspiracy theory that got him onto the best-seller lists (next to the likes of Al Franken), he made himself fair game.

At the moment of his greatest triumph, Krugman has made himself vulnerable by daring to venture outside the aura of prestige provided by the “newspaper of record.” Outside that aura, his crazy and hateful ideas don’t seem quite so authoritative as they do on the op-ed pages. In fact they’re rather silly and embarrassing — to both Krugman and the Times.

Now that Krugman has stepped outside, maybe Brooks’s column today is symbolic in some sense that the Times is reluctant to let Krugman back in.

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