The Corner

Brooks, Elites, Populists, Oh My

I meant to comment on David Brooks’ column on Palin earlier, but got distracted by life. And now, this post has become epic in length.

Well, that’s your problem now.

I agree with Laura Ingraham in parts and with David Brooks in parts. I like the elitism Brooks is talking about and agree with him that the right has indulged its populist streak a bit too much of late. I think Laura needs a lot more qualifiers when she’s talking about the benefits of populism, because populism in and of itself isn’t particularly conservative or principled. There have been a great many populists — Huey Long, Father Coughlin, William Jennings Bryan et al — who do not belong in the conservative pantheon of heroes. Even recently Laura would be the first to decry John Edwards’ brand of populism.

But as a matter of political analysis, I’m with Laura. When I read Brooks’ column on Palin I’m left wondering why he wrote it for the simple reason we’re talking about the vice president. I’m beginning to think David has some very complex views about the vice presidency because he keeps loading it with significance and making, by my lights, odd arguments about it. Recall, he was just about the only columnist to tout Joe Biden for Obama’s VP for reasons that I still find hard to fathom, particularly given the fact Brooks now says populism in the vice-presidency is bad and yet he grounded much of his case for Biden on his “working class roots” (even though, as a matter of fact, Biden doesn’t have working class roots) in Scranton (which, again for the record) apparently aren’t helping in, of all places, Scranton.

He then suggested that the downside to Palin is that as vice-president she wouldn’t “impose a policy structure on [McCain’s] moral intuitions.” It’s an interesting standard but almost completely novel, as far as I can tell.

A far more conventional understanding of the vice-presidency goes like this: vice presidents are usually picked to help win elections and, sometimes, to later help advance the president’s agenda. The first criterion is always a factor, the second only occasionally. The simple fact is no one knows whether Sarah Palin will or would be a good vice president. I remain cautiously optimistic on the question. But it’s worth remembering that many of the same people who say she’d be a bad VP for governing also said she was a bad VP pick politically. On that score, it stands McCain 1, naysayers 0.

Still, if Sarah Palin were at the top of the ticket, I think Brooks’ hand wringing would make more sense.

As it is, I think he’s letting his buyer’s remorse over Bush cloud the issue(s). He writes:

And there’s a serious argument here. In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation’s founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.

I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.”

Really? I certainly think you could find an anti-liberal-establishment attitude in the Bush White House, but I think it’s sort of bizarre to say this was its irreducible essence (a point James Poulos discusses at some length here). The Bush presidency was guided, for good or ill, by many things not merely a cowboys-riding-into-town attitude. Indeed, would that there were more cowboyishness at times. For instance, I wish the cowboys had fired George Tenet instead of deferring to the view of George HW Bush — the ultimate Republican establishmentarian if ever there was one — that the CIA bureaucracy needed to be placated.

It’s also worth noting that every administration of the last 40 years, with the possible exception of Bush 41, had its anti-establishment streak. The Clintonites loathed the David Broder crowd, and vice versa. Reagan certainly broke with the beltway consensus (to great success). Jimmy Carter — an allegedly brilliant and qualified president on Brooks’ terms — was greeted as a naive outsider, because he was one. Nixon’s a tougher case, but he certainly resented the Georgetown set and looked for consolation from the silent majority. Indeed, we have to go back to LBJ to find a true creature of Washington (even if he too resented the Harvard pinheads, even as he relied on them). Last I checked, that presidency had quite a downside.

Anyway, the last half of the column is weighted down with all sorts of eloquent words about the value of experience and prudence but they just don’t match-up to reality all that well. “What is prudence?” asks Brooks. “It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation.” Sounds good. But Joe Biden — his first choice for Obama’s VP — has scads of experience and that experience led him to the conclusion that the right response to 9/11 was to show the Arab world we’re not bent on their destruction and so he proclaimed: “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran.” Sending the leading terror-sponsors a $200 million gift after 9/11 is so imprudent on so many levels it’s almost impossible to get your arms around it. But one small facet of its stupidity not often mentioned: the Iranians aren’t Arabs.

Ultimately, the column seems like one in a series whereby Brooks continues to make his ultimate case for Obama. Admittedly, I’m reading that into what he’s saying both in this column but also previous columns like this one, where Brooks argues that Obama should campaign as the 21st century man who grasps where America is today (terrible political advice, if you ask me). Or this one, where Brooks argues conservatives need to jettison Goldwaterite philosophy (I discussed that one over the weekend). Again and again, Brooks telegraphs his desire to throw away the culture war and to liberate conservatism from arguments he no longer wants to have. It makes for great punditry, but somewhat thin analysis. In his 21st century man column, Brooks writes:

At the core, Obama’s best message has always been this: He is unconnected with the tired old fights that constrict our politics. He is in tune with a new era. He has very little experience but a lot of potential. He does not have big achievements, but he is authentically the sort of person who emerges in a multicultural, globalized age. He is therefore naturally in step with the problems that will confront us in the years to come.

If you read that in conjunction with his column on Palin, it’s easy to see how Brooks basically thinks this is Obama’s moment, just as he passionately believed 2000 was McCain’s. That’s fine, even if I think Obama is much more of a throwback to Cuomo-style liberalism than he does. Brooks is free endorse whoever he wishes — or no one at all — for whatever reasons he deems appropriate. I would still consider him one of the best columnists around. But if that’s what he’s going to do, I wish he’d stop backing into it.

Postscript: Oh, I also meant to add that the divide between the “populists” and the “elitists” has never been as sharp as some might think after reading Brooks’ column. Willmoore Kendall — certainly an intellectual of the first order — was also an avowed populist for much of his career. WFB preferred the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book. Reagan channeled populist sentiment through the filter of conservative ideas. And so on. The reality is that the populism Laura likes and the elitism that Brooks favors is not, and never has been, an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and deal. And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what the McCain-Palin ticket appears to be offering.

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