Let’s Review: David Brooks Really Is a Boil on the Body Politic

I’ve pondered the mystery of why Gail Collins bothers to rise to “civil” in her exchanges with David Brooks, much less why she affords him a dignity he does not deserve – that of treating him as someone capable of sustaining the logic of his own argument long enough to be worth engaging.

I’m guessing she’s either a much nicer person than I ever hope to be — or  else she’s running a year-over-year longitudinal experiment to see just how long Brooks can sustain the pretence of independence as he trundles to his pre-selected conclusions.  Seriously — has anyone here been suprised by the last couple of grafs of a Brooks column, no matter where each piece began?  Anybody?

Thought not.

So, on to today’s text and exegesis.  (Hey, it is Sunday, right?)

From the March 3 Brooks – Collins Opinionator column, we learn that both of our pundits think Romney’s turned himself into a joke, a conclusion few of us, I’m guessing, would dispute.

Brooks begins badly as he contemplates the campaign to date, “My first emotion is pity, and the tremendous ocean of it I feel for Mitt Romney.”

Pity?  For a man who’s single campaign competence lies in spending his friends’ money on destructive ads, while lying about his own and his opponents’ words?

Brooks too must have reserves of the milk of human kindness I lack; or else a brain softened by years of trying to unlearn that which would make more difficult the task of comforting the comfortable.

Me, I just hope that Romney discovers just enough self-awareness to condemn him in the coming decades of an increasingly irrelevant existence to ponder the degree to which his father would be ashamed of him.  I wish Mitt a long life — make no mistake about that.  A miserable one, but long.

But I digress…

Brooks goes on to give his man some sage advice:

If I were Romney, I’d spend the next period of the campaign reading the Stoics, maybe Marcus Aurelius: “Misfortune nobly born is good fortune.” Or perhaps Epictetus: “Difficulties show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. Why? So that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.”

I was going to break in here and call Brooks the intellectual pseud and poser he clearly is, when I realized that perhaps Collins is not quite so forgiving as she appears:

Gail: I do love the way you throw Epictetus in when I’m least expecting it.

Oh, snap!

I do think that talk of hooking up any GOP candidate with “a rough young man,” is exactly the image a supporter would wish to disseminate in the midst of a gay-and-women-loathing bash fest led by the most prominent Republicans around, but let that slide. I’m just loving the way Collins bursts Brooks’ balloon.  Of course she expects her dose of Epictetus; it’s how Brooks rolls.  But it does tee up nicely for her, doesn’t it — and no attentive reader will miss that which seems to glide past the glistening carapace of Brooks’ self regard.

It gets better, which is to say worse, when Brooks permits himself to lament the power of rich people within the GOP:

The primary campaign would be over if not for the Citizens United decision. If Gingrich and Santorum didn’t have “super PAC” sugar daddies, they couldn’t afford to run campaigns. They’d have dropped out and Romney would be cruising.

Super PACs empower protest candidates. Super PACs prolong primary campaigns. Super PACs weaken parties. The irony is that Barack Obama is the first beneficiary of the new campaign finance rules.

Uh, David.

If Super PAC’s (and their equivalent in the privilege a rich guy like Romney gets to self fund without limitation) did not exist, Romney would be dead in the water right now.  As your own newspaper reported two days ago, Romney has been consistently unable to present an affirmative case for his own candidacy — in just about every race he’s ever run, by the way.  But he’s been able to edge toward nomination by deploying negative ads with a scorched earth ferocity Stalin could have admired.  It’s that money, and only that money that has allowed Romney to overcome this fundamental truth: the more people know Mitt, the more they dislike him.

Brooks might be right, to be fair, that Gingrich’s Super PAC cash is all that made him viable.  But the reality is that it is Romney’s access to Citizen’s United-enabled cash in amounts far greater than the amphibian was able to muster is the only source of his “inevitability.  Brooks knows this, but he’s got an ulterior motive in asserting that Super PAC corruption tends to elevate only upstarts, whilst handicapping the “legitimate” candidacy of a Very Serious Person.

And that motive would be to fluff the establishment GOP.  Romney is their man. Truly, it’s the least surprising turn in journalism that Brooks goes on to tell Collins this:

I don’t know if he’ll be a great nominee, but I still think he’d be a fine president. I keep running into people who worked with him at Bain or when he was governor and they saw he was an awesome manager. Even Democrats say this.

Two things: 1) See Charlie Pierce for a taste of what folks say who actually watched Romney up close in Massachusetts.  As someone who was in fact conscious at the time and living not that far from the state house of our beloved Commonwealth, I can tell you that he is remembered as a guy who bailed on the state within two years, and ended his single term with such low approval ratings that it was even odds whether he’d leave town by air or on a rail.

2) Note a classic instance of the Brooks double tuck inverted weasel: “I keep running into people…Even Democrats.”

Oh yeah, tough guy?  Name them.

Brooks has risen as he has because he’s been careful in ways that fellow conservative hacks have not (broken calculators, anyone?) not to give critics any specific claim of fact to test — at least not since this debacle. So it is here.  His taxi driver tells him what a great guy Mitt was.  (A beautiful dancer, perhaps.)  And…you get the point.

Oh, and our weapons are 3)  Collins nails him on the obvious solecism in the chain of “reasoning” Brooks offers here. He claims good managers make good presidents.  Uh…assumption not in evidence, or, as Collins says,

I cannot stress too often that running the country is not the same as running a business. Not even remotely.


Brooks doesn’t even try to respond to this; I’m guessing he knows he can’t.  Instead, he tries to rally just a bit more sympathy for his man:

One way to think about Romney is this: Are his troubles mostly a result of his weaknesses as a candidate or the oddities of the Republican electorate this year? I’d say it’s 30 percent Romney’s fault and 70 percent that large parts of the Republican electorate want someone who either is a joke (Cain) or can’t possibly win or govern (Santorum).

You know, I could almost go so far as to give this a “maybe.”

But actually…no.

The either/or here is an example of a classic fallacy, the problem of the non-excluded middle — not to mention a failure to analyze the direction of causality here.  On the one hand, the disaster could be overdetermined:  Romney could be both loathesome and confronting maniacs — but here I have to stand up for the poor Republican voter.  He or (increasingly rarely) she is not simply crazy in a vacuum.  These voters have become crazier  in part because Romney makes them so, because he is so wretched as a candidate and evidently so hollow as a human being.

All of which is to say that Brooks is in his I/My-Candidate-cannot fail-I/he-are-being-failed territory here. It’s not surprising to see him land in such a hole, though it ain’t pretty.  This is what happens when cheerleaders for oligarchy start to fear the mob.*

That said, I have to admit to a moment’s total agreement with our man BoBo.  He says:

Here’s what I think may happen. Romney gets the nomination and is defeated. Republicans decide they are sick of nominating “moderates” and next time they go haywire. Then the party gets really crushed…

To which I (and Collins) say, in essence, “from your lips to the FSM’s ear.”

But then, Brooks being Brooks, he has to go and botch the blow-off:

and sanity returns.

Good luck with that my friend.

*Oh, and can I vomit in my mouth at this little bit of Brooksiana?

Personally, I love the caucus process, while acknowledging its flaws. I remember once going to a Democratic caucus in Iowa where the supporters of John Edwards tried to lure away the vegan supporters of Dennis Kucinich by offering them steaks. It’s the sort of quirky artifact that us Burkeans love.

Now I get it:  the criteria for assessing the institutions of representative government are to be what what pisses off the kind of folks “Burkeans” disdain. I don’t doubt that Burke might have defended the caucus as a “prescriptive” institution, one whose reason for being was that it had been for a long time, and thus constitutes an accepted element of the system of governance.  (That this Burkean argument rests on assumptions that American democracy has explicitly rejected is a separate matter.)  But Edmund Burke, for all his traditionalism, was not an asshole.  And that is a fact his self-proclaimed heirs may wish to ponder.

Image: Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, Court jesters playing bowls, 1868.

William Hogarth, An Election Entertainment, c. 1755

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One Comment on “Let’s Review: David Brooks Really Is a Boil on the Body Politic”

  1. Terry Welch Says:

    Only just getting around to reading this, but thought I’d mention that Epictetus would have hated David Brooks. He wrote in “The Discourses” about people who spout useless BS they’ve gleaned from reading and pretend it’s knowledge:

    ‘Who was Hector’s father?’


    ‘Who were his brothers?’

    Paris and Deiphobus.

    ‘And who was their mother?’

    Hecuba. That is the account I have received.

    ‘From whom?’

    From Homer: and Hellanicus also writes on the same subject, I believe, and others of the same class.

    So it is with me and the ‘Master’ argument: I go no further. But if I am a vain person I cause the utmost amazement among the company at a banquet by enumerating those who have written on the subject. ‘Chrysippus also has written admirably in the first book of his treatise “On the possible”. Cleanthes, too, has written a special book on this, and Archedemus. And Antipater also has written, not only in his book on “The possible”, but also specially in his work on “the Master” argument. Have you not read the treatise?’

    ‘I have not read it.’

    Read it.

    And what good will he get from it? He will only be more silly and tiresome than he is now.

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