September 24, 2005

Column 2005-9-22 Commentary

In today's column, Brooks gives advice to the Democratic party. He feels the Democrats need to stop being angry and attacking Bush and concentrate more on wonky policy proposals. The fact that approximately nobody else thinks this -- and that, in fact, this is directly opposed to the successful strategies employed by the Republican party over the past few years -- forces one to wonder once again what Democrats would be stupid enough to take Brooks's advice on the direction of the party. Brooks is inspired to tell the Democratic party what it should do with itself by two speeches by prominent Democrats, Kerry and Edwards. (I urge readers to read both speeches and judge for themselves, btw.) According to Brooks, each speaker is responding to Hurricane Katrina in the only way they know how: Kerry with borderline-incoherent Bush-bashing, and Edwards with important policy recommendations. More fundamentally, according to Brooks, these two speeches represent an important divide in the Democratic party, between those who only care about attacking Bush and those who actually want to govern. Incidentally, Edwards's speech mentions Brooks favorably and Kerry's doesn't mention him at all. But I'm sure that this had absolutely no effect on Brooks's analysis.

If this strikes you as rather simplistic, that's because you're smarter than Brooks. "Edwards is not so obsessed with power struggles" Brooks writes, and indeed, therein lies the rub. Kerry is currently a politician who is ramping up for the 2006 elections, which will largely be run as a referendum on Bush and his policies. His speech is a highly political speech. Edwards, by contrast, will not be involved in those elections, or strongly involved in politics at all until 2007 at the earliest. Instead, he has plunged into the world of policy, and while he makes some attacks on Bush, the focus of his speech is on programs for dealing with poverty. There's not much partisan politics in it, but that's because, as even Brooks is forced to admit, Edwards is not a politician at the moment. The fact is that these two speeches complement each other. An effective Democratic party requires both the the political and the policy components, and to suggest that these two speeches are actually representative of two divergent strands of thought in the party is very simple-minded. It is also worth noting that the Democrats are not currently in the majority, and so the policy side will inevitably be smaller than the political side, especially in the current political environment where any Democratic proposal is essentially DOA.

Having explained why Brooks is wrong in general, let us examine how he gets the details wrong. Specifically, Brooks's analysis of Kerry's speech completely twists its meaning. Kerry begins his speech by saying "And that's what I've come to talk with you about today. The incompetence of Katrina's response is not reserved to a hurricane. There's an enormous gap between Americans' daily expectations and government's daily performance. And the gap is growing between the enduring strength of the American people -- their values, their spirit, their imagination, their ingenuity, and their willingness to serve and sacrifice -- and the shocking weakness of the American government in contending with our country's urgent challenges. On the Gulf Coast during the last two weeks, the depth and breadth of that gap has been exposed for all to see and we have to address it now before it is obscured again by hurricane force spin and deception." It should be clear to the meanest intelligence -- which, apparently, Brooks has yet to achieve -- that Kerry intends to talk about how the incompetence of the response to Katrina is not a fluke, but in fact is a function of the incompetence of the Bush administration as a whole, and that is indeed what he does. "There are many interesting issues raised by Katrina, but for Senator Ahab it all goes back to the great white monster, Bush" says Brooks. While he gets points for the metaphor, Bush is, after all, the president, and what is more a president who has consistently run on a promise to make America safer. When his administration badly bungles the response to a major natural disaster, that's an extremely interesting issue. To a politician, it might well be the most interesting issue: Bush's response, most notably putting his political point man, Karl Rove, in charge of the Gulf Coast reconstruction effort, certainly suggests that Bush thinks so. "Bush and his crew should have known the levees were weak. Bush and his crew should have known thousands of people would be trapped" Brooks paraphrases sarcastically, adding with a parenthetical sneer "(Did I miss Kerry's own warnings on these subjects?)" To which, again, the obvious response is that Bush is the president (not Kerry, who does not have access to all the information Bush can, or should, get from various agencies attached to his administration). And, furthermore, Bush is claims to be the security president, and a hurricane taking out New Orleans was rated one of the three catastrophes most likely to strike the United States. Someone in the administration probably should have known about the status of the levees. Somebody probably should have anticipated that people would have been unable to get out and made contingency plans to evacuate them. But, of course, nobody did. However, anyone can make mistakes. And the DHS is a new agency (even though the decision to fold FEMA into the DHS was made by Bush), so it's believable that even a consistently competent administration could foul this up. Which is why it is necessary for Kerry to point out that the administration, and the Republican party, have been, in fact, consistently incompetent. Brooks dismisses this with "Porn movies have less repetition than this," but in fact the repetition (of facts mentioned in other speeches, not this speech, so it's not even a very good metaphor) is exactly the point: when all the stupidities, incompetences, and corruptions are listed side-by-side, they can not be dismissed as isolated instances but must be regarded as part of a pattern. Brooks wonders disdainfully why Kerry continues to drag out the old "anti-Bush jabs", "DeLay jibes", and "Wolfowitz attacks": "Doesn't this guy ever get bored?" But, of course, Wolfowitz was spectacularly wrong about Iraq. Tom DeLay is entirely corrupt: hell, Brooks even wrote a column about it (see the archives). And Bush has screwed up so many things it's not even funny any more. Sometimes it's good to keep reminding people of the facts. Brooks concludes that "this is not a normal speech designed to persuade or inform, but a primitive rite designed to channel group outrage." He is, of course, wrong: the speech is intended to persuade people that Bush's record indicated that he is a bad president. Judging by recent poll numbers, people are starting to get the message: perhaps this is why Brooks is attacking the messenger.

Finally, the most inexplicable part of this column is that Brooks seems to think that Edwards's speech represents a less partisan, more centrist wing of the Democratic party. This strongly suggests that Brooks didn't actually read Edwards's speech. In the speech, Edwards praises the New Deal and points out that the War on Poverty, though it had some faults, was quite successful. He says "If you work full-time, you shouldn't have to raise your children in poverty." He wants to raise the minimum wage to at least $7.50 an hour and "give [workers] back a real right to organize." He proposes offering workers money they can use for down payments on houses, expanding the EITC to help families save, and subsidizing housing for poor people so they can move into better neighborhoods. Edwards also wants to give everyone their first year of college free. And how will he pay for it? Largely by raising taxes on the rich: repealing the Bush tax cuts for the richest 1% and changing the Alternative Minimum Tax so that it applies to only to the rich, as it was originally designed to. Now, this program certainly doesn't go nearly far enough, in my opinion. For one thing, Edwards barely mentions health care and is vague on just how a "real right to organize" would be achieved. Furthermore, why just one year of college? Why not four years for free? There are other shortcomings, but the fact remains that Edwards wants to raise taxes on the rich to pay for programs to lift the poor out of poverty. If that's not liberalism, I don't know what is. And if Brooks thinks the Democratic party is ever going to return to "Clintonian centrism", he is much mistaken. "Bush may end up changing the Democratic Party more than his own." Brooks opines. Well, that may not be true: Bush has had a major effect on his own party as well. But if Edwards will come to define the right wing of the Democratic party, Bush may have accomplished one good thing after all.