Why I Turned Right is an essay collection that chronicles the ideological journeys of leading conservatives. It includes an entry from David Brooks, who described himself as a “Hamiltonian conservative” and twice cited John McCain as the type of politician who most aligned with Brooks’ own governing philosophy. This collection was published in February, 2007.
A year later, McCain became the Republican presidential candidate. As the self-proclaimed conservative voice at the liberal NY Times, Brooks had a tremendous opportunity to evangelize an entire segment of the population that typically did not embrace his view of government nor hear many of the arguments for that vision. However, instead of penning a column on the great leap forward in American politics that saw the Republican Party produce Brooks’ ideal candidate, he endorsed Barack Obama, a committed leftist, partly because he was impressed with the crease in the future president’s pants.
In other words, Brooks’ council might be more useful to the cover model selection team at Vogue or GQ than the kingmakers in the Republican Party. Also, chasing his political tastes is probably a fool’s errand.
It is in this context that a reader needs to engage Brooks’ latest column, in which he glowingly cites a recent Marco Rubio speech, which had a similar theme to Rubio’s Republican Convention speech, as a potential turning point for the party. Since Brooks already rejected his ideal nominee, McCain, as a potential turning point, what did Rubio have to say that so impressed Brooks? He discussed “creating more community health centers, investing in more teacher training, embracing Pell Grants.”
What Brooks touts as an “epidemic of open-mindedness” is really “more of the same policies that got us into this mess” (sorry, I had to). We don’t need to spend (er… invest) more on teacher training so much as spend more flexibly, and less on education administrators like the Orwellian Diversity Officers that have become ubiquitous. Half of recent college grads are underemployed; when do we question whether throwing more Pell Grant money at a devalued asset makes sense? Finally, endorsing the federal government as the funders and creators of community health centers is redefining conservatism itself.
After praising Rubio’s footnote on government expansion, Brooks then diagnoses what currently ails the Republican Party, criticizing the Tea Party’s “lock step unity”, the candidates like Richard Mourdock who “declared that they didn’t believe in compromise”, and the Heritage Foundation for lacking “intellectual innovation”.
The Tea Party critique is odd since the reason it exists is to push in “lock step” for fiscal constraint against “lock step” liberal fiscal suicide. And when the only compromise that liberal statists will accept is to meet in the middle on how fast the United States will race toward fiscal disaster, why would a group committed to saving the American dream for their children abnegate that purpose in the interest of comity? Instead of revolting against the status quo, should Founding Fathers such as Alexander Hamilton have simply compromised on the number of British troops that American colonists were required to quarter?
According to Brooks, the man whose definition of “intellectual innovation” seems to entail “thinking of more areas the federal government can interfere with” along with “surrendering principles in the name of compromise”, the answer may well be yes.
The recent election loss is a good reason to evaluate both the Republican message and how to expand the reach of that message. Among other priorities, conservatives must work to reform the liberal-dominated education system, engage pop culture with more savvy, and stop letting our opposition to big government be framed in the public eye as “not wanting the rich to pay 4% more in taxes”. In that vein, the Romney campaign was foolish to prevent Paul Ryan from entering the deep blue territory of major cities to let him espouse a principled conservative vision of personal empowerment that those citizens rarely hear.
But those are different issues than Brooks’ paean to pandering, which entails being more clever than Democrats in figuring out ways to spend money we don’t have. Runaway government debt, exacerbated by our current entitlement structure, is the defining issue of our time. Imposing fiscal restraint may not be a sexy goal, but it’s the one that matters most. The electorate’s rejection of this reality will not make it go away.
Pleasing flaky conservatives like David Brooks is a fool’s errand. Too many have missed Paul Ryan’s message of personal empowerment and emphasis on protecting the space of free society between the individual and the federal government. But Ryan has been the defining Republican of the last two years, and as a major media personality, David Brooks has no excuse for not hearing it. Furthermore, if Republicans promise to hire 200,000 new teachers, Obama will just up the ante to 400,000 then go all in with a new government agency to train them. After the 2008 election and his latest column, we all know which idea Brooks will find more persuasive.