Thursday, August 10, 2006

Brooks Says: Vote Perot! (Or is it Vote Libertarian!")

Behind the firewall, in "Party No. 3", David "Babbling" Brooks endorses a "McCain-Lieberman" ticket, as somehow the cure for all that ails America. (What would we call this new party... perhaps the Huggy-Kissy Party? Ah yes, independent centerists to the end.

Brooks starts with some racial overtones, sneering at Lamont for letting Al Sharpton share space on the stage at his victory speech. Lieberman, after all, would never appear with Al Sharpton, let alone be photogaphed with him, or sit next to him at a pro-choice rally. Without even starting a new paragraph, Brooks makes plain that he doesn't understand the American political system, or how primaries work:
And the McCain-Lieberman Party was represented by Joe Lieberman himself, giving a concession speech that explained why polarized primary voters shouldn’t be allowed to define the choices in American politics.
Is he really taking the position that we should no longer have primaries? That each party should designate its preferred candidates, and that the voters should be stuck with that choice for fear that the most active, informed, motivated, and yes extreme local members of the party might pick somebody else? Sure, the primary system can work against centrist candidates, but let's be honest for a moment - there are moderate Republicans who would be replaced in a heartbeat by their party, but for the fact that there is a primary system in place. That's not a recipe for centrist politics.
The McCain-Lieberman Party begins with a rejection of the Sunni-Shiite style of politics itself. It rejects those whose emotional attachment to their party is so all-consuming it becomes a form of tribalism, and who believe the only way to get American voters to respond is through aggression and stridency.
Note how neatly Brooks skips over the central issue - what this party would stand for. Like Perot's Reform Party, or the Libertarian Party, that may work as long as they are serving primarily as an outlet for a protest vote. But if they seriously want to win an election, they need to take a stand on the issues that matter to voters. The Simpsons parodied this many years ago, with space aliens disguising themselves as the Presidential candidates:
Announcer: Ladies and Gentlemen, 73-year-old candidate, Bob Dole.

Kang: Abortions for all.

[crowd boos]

Very well, no abortions for anyone.

[crowd boos]

Hmm... Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.

[crowd cheers and waves miniature flags]
So what would McCain Lieberman give us... Abortions rights from Lieberman, miniature American flags from McCain... without even agreement on whether it should be constitutional for McCain to forbid the voters to burn their little flags. No agreement on reproductive choice. No agreement on First Amendment principles of symbolic speech, perhaps unless it involves banning video games. Lieberman supporting federal intervention in Shiavo. McCain endorsing the teaching of intelligent design in the classroom. McCain supporting gay rights, and Lieberman opposing them.... A party that simultaneously stands for everything and nothing. They don't even seem to agree on what centrism is - McCain's is an iconoclastic centrism under which he can stand against his party when he chooses, and which does not require his seeking compromise or middle ground. McCain gets to define the center, and then lets others join him there. Lieberman's is a deferential centrism, in which he is willing to yield ground to those who hold power in order to resolve an issue, even if the other side itself cedes no ground in order to reach the resulting "compromise". In my opinion, both often engage in their form of centrism for personal reasons and political gain. They both love the spotlight, they both love being seen as above party politics, and they both seem to believe that by being darlings of the media and of pundits like Brooks they are somehow deserving of the adulation of the voting public.
The McCain-Lieberman Party counters with constant reminders that country comes before party, that in politics a little passion energizes but unmarshaled passion corrupts, and that more people want to vote for civility than for venom.
How? By virtue of being impressed with the value set and behavior codes of wealthy white men? They get the benefit of not having to articulate a political platform because they know how to dress nicely, shake hands, and smile at the right moments? Brooks tries to articulate the Lieberman-McCain common ground, which would supposedly make it distinct from the major parties:
  • They agree with Tony Blair on the "War on Terror". (It isn't explained how this differs from agreeing with Bush.)
  • They will raise taxes while slashing social programs. (Possible, but hardly a winning election platform, nor an indication that they could agree on how to raise taxes or how to cut social welfare programs.)
  • They believe in free trade, investment in "human capital" and "immigration reform". (What does any of that actually mean to Brooks, let alone to a possible political platform?)
  • They don't like teacher's unions, or allowing corporations to write environmental rules. (There's some loyalty for you... the teacher's union endorses Lamont, and it's like they never shared their love with Lieberman. Presumably Lieberman still loves the AFL-CIO... unless they support Lamont in the general election.)
  • "It sees two traditions immobilized to trench warfare." (While perhaps voters see McCain drawing lines in the sand, and Lieberman trying to breach the other side's trench by offering a handful of pansies.)
So when it comes to the major issues, Brooks defines "centrism" as total deference to present military policy. He sees it as "centrist" to raise taxes. He sees it as "centrist" to cut social welfare programs - while at the same time proposing new social welfare programs to revamp our nation's "human capital". Health care isn't an issue that matters to the "center". Abortion rights aren't relevant to the "center". Rights for gays aren't relevant. First Amendment issues aren't relevant.

He also seems to believe that to be a centrist you must pursue your party's goals in a moderate, consensus-building manner, as otherwise you're engaging in "trench warfare". That's just plain silly. If the centrist party wants to achieve universal health care coverage, for example, it will have to steamroll over opposition to that plan.

Basically, as is typical, Brooks hasn't thought this one out.

Addendum: I think that Lieberman's position on the war contributed significantly to his loss, but I think it was his approach to politics - the faux centrism that makes him the darling of political conservatives like Brooks - which cost him the election. The manner in which he supported the war and condescended to his critics, the straw which broke his back in the primary campagn, is a manifestation of that faux centrism.


  1. Very well said. I would add that the problem is not just that Lieberman refuses to distance himself from Bush's positions, but a) that Lieberman refuses to distance himself from Bush's *wrong* positions, and b) Lieberman condemns those who hold different views as unpatriotic.

  2. Sean, Hollywood FL8/13/06, 12:17 AM

    I find that Brooks is both brilliant in his ability to foresee trends that favor his position and cosmically numb to common sense faults in his analysis. I torture myself weekly reading the diabolically, transparently manipulative "trends" he discovers in every corner of our nation. I wish he would put as much enthusiasm in his fact-finding as he does in his reality-warping columns.


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