Brooks was measuring a politician’s intellectual depth according to the tried-and-true standard that we all use: the extent to which the candidate whose intellect is being measured agrees with the person doing the measuring. Obama shattered Brooks’s depth-gauge because he eloquently championed an idea close to Brooks’s fluttering heart, viz., that what the country needs, above all, is someone to lead us out of the lamentable ideological impasse between small-government conservatism and tax-and-spend liberalism.
Never mind that the embrace of any democratic politician always involves some wishful thinking on the part of the person extending his arms. You can’t blame Brooks for persuading himself that the authentic Obama was the one saying all the right things from a Brooksian standpoint. Nor, however, can you blame those liberals and conservatives who listened attentively to Obama and thought they were hearing a pretty doctrinaire liberal aspiring to complete the work of the New Deal. Brooks has been around long enough to know that nobody gets elected president without being different things to different people.
Now he’s wallowing in unrequited bromantic love because Obama has taken his place on the left side of a familiar ideological barricade in anticipation of the next election. How tiresome! Yesterday’s “give-em-hell-Barack” speech has Brooks describing himself as a recovering “Obama sap”:
“This wasn’t a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible.Given what we know about the psychology of unrequited love, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on the success of Brooks’s recovery. At any moment, a few honeyed words from Obama (or another provocation from Rick Perry) might set Brooks’s bromantic heart aflutter all over again. But let’s focus on his disillusionment. I can see why Brooks would be sorely disappointed that Obama and the rest of us are boring him by not moving “beyond stale ideological debates” and “breaking out of conventional categories.” But what betrayal has Brooks suffered that explains his sudden indignation at Obama?
“Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.”
Obama spent a lot of his diminishing stock of political capital over the summer trying to broker a grand budget deal that would have warmed Brooks’s heart, without getting any return on his investment. What’s wrong at this late date with Obama saying that, if Republicans are going to make him choose, he’d rather raise taxes on well-to-do people than cut Medicare and Social Security benefits? And what’s wrong, for that matter, with Republicans saying that they prefer the opposite? It’s not like either side is solely responsible for the impasse we've reached or being disingenuous about what it really thinks is best for the country. Why should “get[ting] something done” (or more precisely, getting something Brooks wants done) be more important to the people entrusted by voters with the job of doing it than getting it right by their own lights?
To govern is to choose; to govern democratically is to choose within the practical constraints imposed by intra- and inter-party competition in anticipation of the next election. No one can say that there’s been any shortage of vigorous political competition since Obama was inaugurated. For better or worse, the political jockeying has presented us with an unusually stark choice between the “small-government” priorities revealed by documents like the Paul Ryan budget and the “big-government” priorities animating Obama’s jobs plan and yesterday’s speech. David Brooks's priorities didn’t make the cut because politicians whose business it is to know what voters want don't think they're politically viable.
So, yes, we’ve reached an ideological impasse, but one that must answer to a lot of people’s heartfelt convictions because we've arrived at it democratically. I guess Brooks thinks that not only Obama, but all the rest of us who've put our two cents into the process, have let him down. Don't you just hate yourself for it?