April 09, 2005

Column 2005-4-09 Commentary

Today's column offers the amusing but sadly all too rare spectacle of Brooks coming into contact with reality. This time, reality informs Brooks that the American people disapproved of the Schiavo spectacle, that they don't like Social Security privatization, and that Americans are growing steadily more suspicious of the rampantly and unapologetically corrupt Tom DeLay. In his last column, Brooks laughed off Democratic claims that the Republican message machine was responsible for their success by saying that this was simply a Democratic attempt to deflect attention from their bad ideas. Without ever seeming to be conscious of the irony, he now claims that Republican failure is caused by the "conservatism of the American people." All the Republican ideas are good, it's just that the American people are unwilling to adopt new ideas. At the same time, he describes the Republicans as "the transformational party" (tacitly admitting that conservatism and the Republican party no longer have much to do with each other). So apparently, the conservative and suspicious of sudden, revolutionary change American people have elected Republicans for six years running because the Republicans are going to transform things. And, as we know from Brooks's last column, the main reason that people follow a party is because they like its philosophy, so the conservative American people are voting for the transformational Republican party because they want change. If your head hurts now, think what Brooks must be going through. No wonder he has to write something deeply trivial every few columns: being a partisan hack is more of a strain than it would seem.

The rest of the column isn't much better (or, if you're looking for comic relief, it's just as good). Apparently, the conservativism of the American people means that they want decisions like the Schiavo decision to be made at the local level. So, according to Brooks, conservatism means not interfering with personal decisions and "imposing solutions from afar, based on abstract principles rather than concrete particulars." Well, that second part would seem to eliminate the entire Republican agenda, which is inspired purely by ideology and has nothing to do with "concrete particulars" or "discernible reality". But then again, as Brooks has admitted, the Republicans are not a conservative party: they are a transformational party, and as they attempt to transform American into a quasi-theocracy dominated by big business, they aren't going to let any facts get in their way. Additionally, it must be their crazy conservativism that causes Americans to be, for whatever reason, reluctant to let the Republican party run roughshod over the separation of powers and the rule of law in order to make a political point (for more, see here). And they don't approve of Republican congressmen making threats against judges who disagree with them. For some reason, Brooks forgets to mention this, but it may just have slipped his mind.

The next place where the conservatism of the American people pops up is in their resistance to privatizing Social Security. If not wanting to have Social Security destroyed is conservatism (remember, the Republicans are transformational, not conservative), then yes, the American people are conservative. Brooks would like us to believe that Americans resist private accounts simply because of a reluctance to try something new, but in fact polls have shown over and over that the more people learn about private accounts, the less they like them. Private accounts are a truly bad idea, and the American people aren't that dumb: given the chance, they can figure this out. (I apologize for linking to myself so often, but it's easy to do, and there are links to actual good websites in those columns.) I'm not going to discuss why private accounts for Social Security are a bad idea here, mostly because I've done it before, and you can undoubtedly find many more lucid analyses by people with actual backgrounds in economics on the web. But the fact is that they are, that Americans are starting to realize that this is the case, and that Brooks is unwilling to accept either of the previous two facts.

Finally, Brooks thinks that the conservatism of the American people causes them to dislike Tom DeLay. Americans dislike "leaders who perpetually play it close to the ethical edge." They distrust "leaders who, under threat, lash out wildly at beloved institutions like the judiciary." They don't approve of "leaders whose instinct is always to go out wildly on the attack." This would seem to rule out practically all the leaders in the Republican party, but we'll stick with DeLay for now, and with what Brooks doesn't mention: Americans don't like leaders who are deeply, hopelessly corrupt. Here's a quick list of Delay scandals that have been firmly confirmed (the DNC can only afford to put the confirmed ones on their website). Brooks also seems to have forgotten about the column he wrote a couple of weeks ago about how corruption is endemic in the Republican party. He's correct about one thing, though: "If DeLay falls, it will not be because he took questionable trips or put family members on the payroll." Indeed not. If he falls, it will be because he is a cesspool of corruption. Aside from the fact that DeLay has been bought by a number of corporations, there are serious questions, which Brooks himself raised in his previous column, having to do with connections between DeLay and Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist with very close ties to DeLay, and Michael Scanlon, who used to be DeLay's spokesman, both of whom are now under federal investigation. Other Delay aides have been indicted for corruption by a grand jury in Texas. And this corruption extends beyond DeLay: for instance, Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert also has close ties to Abramoff. For now, the focus is on Delay, but he is merely the center of a network of corruption in the House Republican leadership, and any serious investigation into DeLay is likely to bring down the entire leadership: after all, why else would they be stepping up to defend him? Aside from pressure from the fundies, of course, who seem to be determined that if Delay goes down, he will take the entire party with him. In fact, Brooks is probably acknowledging these issues by downgrading the wholesale corruption he previously condemned to "questionable trips" and "family members on the payroll". The attempt to throw Abramoff, Reed, and Delay over the side and pretend that all the corruption is now gone has been abandoned as impossible, leaving only a desperate defense of an increasingly untenable position.

Brooks is also correct that this is not good news for the Democrats yet: their poll numbers are also down, but his hysterical talk of death spirals is a sure sign that he recognizes the potential this has to drag the Republican party down in the long run. Furthermore, his assertion that the party is now being led by "the highly educated and secular university-town elites who follow Howard Dean", which will prevent their ever regaining power, is highly dubious. For one thing, Dean has been practically invisible over the past few months. What Brooks is really worried about is the possibility that all the white working-class voters who have been leaving the Democrats will realize that the Democrats actually represent their beliefs better than the Republicans. In fact, many voters are experiencing buyer's remorse: this transformational party is not what they thought they were getting. They didn't vote for a party that would interfere in personal decisions, take away their Social Security, and steep itself in corruption. Brooks's swipe at Dean is a desperate attempt to keep the white working-class voters who are leaving the Democrats from actually thinking about Democratic policies. It's of a piece with Republican strategy, which has been to smear the Democrats as soft on terror, anti-God, and generally out of touch with the common man. Once the common man realizes that the Republicans may not actually be in touch with him -- after all, they are trying to take away his Social Security and legislate Christian morality on him (not just the homophobic parts, all of it) -- he may start to question all Republican propaganda, including the question of whether the Democrats are actually a bunch of secular, pointy-headed academics, and once this questioning process begins, the Republicans are in real trouble. Brooks gets to the heart of the matter when he calls the Republicans a transformational party, where transformational is a euphemism for radical. The Americans didn't elect the Republicans to completely dismantle the social safety net and legislate morality, and now that they are realizing that this is actually what the Republicans have planned, they are understandably somewhat upset. Brooks's desperate bleatings about "prudence" and "public opinion . . . is always worth respecting" are calls for restraint addressed to a party that, by his own admission, has no intention of restraining itself. They can only be regarded as clumsy attempts to provide camouflage for the party as it goes about its radical agenda. After all, the party's two core constituencies, the religious right and big business, want big changes, and they will continue to push for them no matter how many swing voters it alienates. After the election, many progressives wondered how it was that voters didn't seem to see the radical agenda that the Republicans and Bush were promoting. How could they not see what they were voting for, we wondered. Well, they're starting to see now.

The most stunning part of the column, though, is Brooks's call for a new face for the Republican party. Who does he think needs to step up? Why, no other than Dennis Hastert. This is as shocking admission by Brooks that the Republican party is in serious trouble. The usual roster of big names -- Rumsfeld, Cheney, DeLay, Frist, McCain, Jeb Bush -- are apparently all tainted. Brooks even admits that Bush is now actually unpopular and that talk of a mandate is now just so much talk. Instead, Brooks calls for Hastert, who is the Speaker of the House but is almost completely unknown outside of political circles. In effect, Brooks concedes that right now, it is better if no prominent Republicans are in the public eye (even Ahnold has his troubles). This is especially interesting when one recalls that Hastert became speaker after Newt Gingrich resigned following Republican House losses in 1998. After it was revealed that Gingrich's most likely successors, Bob Livingston and Henry Hyde, had had extramarital affairs, Hastert was pushed forward as a candidate, largely because he was completely unknown and so lacked the negatives that the Clinton impeachment attached to the Republican House leadership. The fact that Brooks thinks it's necessary to do something similar now, except instead of just hiding away the House leadership, he wants to hide away the leadership of the entire party, is a sign that the party expects some serious fallout from its actions. The mere fact that Brooks thinks that Bush, inaugurated mere months ago, needs to get out of the limelight may signal that Bush's lame-duck status has arrived already. The Republican party is in full retreat, and the Democrats need to press the attack.

While Brooks's column is worthless as a piece of writing, it does signal that a certain amount of panic is developing in Republican circles. The problem with being the party that doesn't care about reality is that reality cares about you. The Republicans appear to be on the verge of finding this out the hard way. Brooks, however, appears to be at leisure to ignore reality to his heart's content. On the other hand, this column suggests one reason why the Times might keep him around: every once in a while, his unintentional comedy value is off the charts. Still, in balance I'd say it's not worth it. We can only hope that the Times comes to the same conclusion.