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David Brooks didn't always dismiss policy achievements

David Brooks has a sharp column today mocking Democrats for being proud of their accomplishments despite facing a loss at the polls. He also had a sharp column in 2005 criticizing Republicans for accomplishing nothing despite having just won a major victory at the polls. The two make for an interesting contrast.

The story Democrats are telling themselves, Brooks archly explains, is that they "are lagging this year because the country appears incapable of appreciating the grandeur of their accomplishments."

Flash back to 2005: "Having skimmed decades of private-account proposals, Republicans did not appreciate how unfamiliar this idea would seem to many people. They didn't appreciate how beloved Social Security is, and how much they would have to show they love it, too, before voters would trust them to reform it."

So when, exactly, is it acceptable to blame public opinion on political communication?

Brooks goes on to suggest a drinking game. "Take a shot every time a White House official is quoted blaming Republicans for the Democrats’ political plight," he writes, joking that you'll quickly find yourself unconscious.

And if you played the same game with his 2005 column? Well, there's the part where he says "the Democrats played the Yasir Arafat role at Camp David. They made no counteroffers. They offered no plan. They just said no." There's the bit about how "the Howard Dean hotheads declare that they hate the evil Republicans, making compromise seem like collaborating with Satan." There's the sad shake of the pen at the Democrats' "demagogic speeches about Republican benefit cuts." There's the diagnosis that Democrats "are still traumatized by their own losses" and "focused on past defeats, not future opportunities, and interested in revenge, not governing and accomplishment." I'm counting 13 shots, though I admit the rules are a bit unclear (does "they offered no plan" and "they just said no" count as one or two shots?).

Finally, Brooks says Democrats are lazily telling one another that "Americans are nearsighted and ill-informed." Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn that the vox populi was less infallible in 2005, when Brooks wrote, "Oh, yes, there's one more group to be criticized: the American voters. For the past 30 years, Americans have wanted high entitlement spending and low taxes. From the looks of things today, they - or more precisely their children - are going to live with the consequences." It's funny: That sort of sounds like "Americans are nearsighted and ill-informed."

As it happens, I don't think the political environment is all that difficult to explain: Unemployment is near 10 percent. If you want some more explanations: The legislative process is bitter and angry and ugly; the media focus on conflict and encourage polarization; and presidents almost always lose seats in their first midterm election. In fact, there are only two exceptions since the Civil War.

I'm sure there are pieces of legislation that the Democrats could have passed, pieces of legislation they could have not passed or communication strategies they could have tried that would've strengthened their hand in this election. It's harder to say which exactly those were. The only clear-cut case you can make is for policies that would have done more to reduce the unemployment rate, but I've not been convinced that any of the ideas that could've done more to reduce unemployment -- twice as much stimulus, say -- really had a chance of passing. Meanwhile, the health-care bill might be unpopular, but I think it'll do more for the country than any other piece of legislation passed in the last 30 years.

Brooks doesn't agree with me in those judgments, of course. But the argument he made was not that Democrats shouldn't be proud of their record because their record is substantively bad. The argument he made was that it's prima facie ridiculous to be proud of substance when you're about to lose an election.

This seems like a weird way to think about governance. You don't win elections in order to win more elections. You win elections in order to solve problems and make the country better. In 2005, when Brooks was more favorably disposed towards the achievements on the table, he knew that, and wasn't shy about lamenting the demise of legislation the American people hated. "I hope this obit becomes obsolete," he said toward the end of his column. Back then, Brooks was focused on "governing and accomplishments," and he was angry that the Democrats were "focused on past defeats" and "revenge." Now, it seems, the tables have turned.

By Ezra Klein  | October 26, 2010; 4:37 PM ET
Categories:  2010 Midterms  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Quantitative electioneering
Next: Reconciliation


Had the Dems passed more stimulus, so that unemployment were heading toward 7% & Medicare for All with an option to add more private insurance, & a perfect fin reg bill, they'd still be looking at losing control of both houses. And had President McCain done no better (and he stood for nothing that would have done as well as the Dems have done), he'd be facing the same loses. Even if the Reps had worked with the Dems to pass better bills & thereby share the blame & praise, the Dems would still be looking a big loses. The economy explains it all. Though, I think, the economy would have recovered sooner & more or less guaranteed Obama's re-election in 12. I don't think the Reps would intentionally damage the country just to win an election, but I think they have done so inadvertently, by being so pigheaded & ignorant.

Posted by: davidpancost | October 26, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

David Brooks is a hack. That the DC villagers think he has anything worth considering says everything you need to know about them.

Posted by: lol-lol | October 26, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

There was an excellent comment attached to Brooks column, something to the effect that he'd soon be decrying the lack of courageous politicians anywhere (forgetting, of course, the courage Democrats showed this term in taking unpopular positions to confront major problems).

The biggest problems for the Democrats is this milquetoast President. Until I hear something akin to "I relish their hatred" from him, my opinion will not change.

Posted by: Hieronymous | October 26, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

Um, don't we already know that Brooks' job is to launder right-wing talking points through his New York Times column where he plays the role of "reasonable conservative" ? Should it be surprising that Brooks is pushing Republican party narratives rather than trying to make honest assessments of anything?

Posted by: constans | October 26, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

Two points:

Charlie Cook from today's Gerson column:

"But through trial and error, Democrats eventually hit on a more effective public message. "They tried bashing Bush for months, which did not work," Cook explains. "They gave up defending their record. Now they are going after the personal and career shortcomings of their opponents, some of whom are not very well vetted.""

Like Cook, I don't see much evidence that the Democrats are actually proud of and are trying to run on their record.

A person in today's Eugene Robinson online chat put it well:

"Although focusing on jobs instead of health care payment changes may not have changed the unemployment rate, it would have been in line with the public's expectations of where the effort should be focused. By focusing on an agenda that the public continually said it did not favor, the Democrats simply seemed ideological, arrogant, out of touch, and indifferent to the suffering of more Americans. Whenever a party is perceived as ideological rather than practical, it is punished. You can look it up."

Posted by: jnc4p | October 26, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

From David Brooks rightward they're all Republicans first and Americans second. Even the so-called moderates simply can't countenance Democrats in power, and consider elections that put Democrats in power as illegitimate (hence the ginned-up "voter fraud" campaigns about to be released in this country). This is why folks like Snowe and Ryan played you like a violin, Ezra.They're fighting a holy war, every last one of 'em.

Posted by: scarlota | October 26, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

Actually, Republicans win elections in order to win more elections, policy be damned.

Posted by: RZ100 | October 26, 2010 7:32 PM | Report abuse

" I don't think the Reps would intentionally damage the country just to win an election, but I think they have done so inadvertently, by being so pigheaded & ignorant. Posted by: davidpancost "

So you don't believe that Mitch McConnell, Jim Demint, Darryl Issa, and John Boehner are men of their words?

They SAID they would do everything in their power to cause Obama to fail. And letting Obama solve economic problems and bring down unemployment, which would have been possible had the republicans not done every thing they could to delay EVERY bit of needed legislation.

We could have doubled or tripled the gasoline tax. Lots of Economists say this is an excellent idea for lots of reasons. Every bit of those gas taxes could have been spent on rehabbing a worn out U.S. Highway, and U.S. Interstate system. Many many jobs. No increase in the deficit. NO significant increase in the price of gas because that is decided by the all the market will take rule.

Not possible, of course, because there were enough Senators to vote to pass the bill, but not enough to end the filibuster. So, since this is a provable case of something possible that would create jobs with no increase in the deficit, and no increase in prices, who gets the blame for not creating those jobs?

Brooks would say the Democrats.

I stopped reading him two years ago. he isn't even worth refuting. He hasn't had an original thought or an original column in all that time. Someone says, "Give me 7500 words of Republican boiler plate on Obama is a failure." and he cranks out 7500 words. And we have heard all before, ad nauseum.

Posted by: ceflynline | October 26, 2010 8:19 PM | Report abuse

great post Ezra. Usually I love David Brook's work, becomes he tends to come across as a non-partisan moderate, but lately he's had a string of columns that just seem like pure dribble, like he's just taking the stance of the token conservative at the NYT. good to see you calling him out on he's hypocrisy.

Posted by: SnowleopardNZ | October 26, 2010 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Yes, both parties are full of idiots- as are the American people. Defending political parties or politicians makes Ezra looks just as stupid as Brooks. Brooks still has some good insights, but

It's not about people with power, it's about ideas. We all know we can't have unlimited spending, but no one wants to be the bad cop and take away hip replacements for people over 85 or whatever.

Posted by: staticvars | October 26, 2010 10:20 PM | Report abuse

The one thing they could have done, and is unforgivable really, is to pass a health care plan that went into effect quickly.

As it is, I had to endure David Axelrod today telling me something that would happen in 2014!

Voters can't be expected to be proud of accomplishments that were needlessly postponed into the future. (And whether it will survive the next Congress is open to question, at least.)

Posted by: Hopeful9 | October 26, 2010 10:26 PM | Report abuse

What accomplishments? The 2000+ page bills were passed by Congress, not Obama. And legislation is not an achievement in itself. What counts are its implementation, and the consequences, near and remote, of that implementation.

Posted by: suegbic1 | October 27, 2010 4:41 AM | Report abuse

Commenters here are weighing in on Brooks being a conservative hack with a one sided opinion? This in response to Ezzie's column, a guy who ran a blog which encouraged other writers to trash Republicans as a Progressive strategy on a grand scale? And he is writing in a liberal paper which pretends to be objective. And Brooks is a token conservative at the NYT which is if possible worst than the Post? Maybe it is sour grapes because the Forty Year Liberal Reich is over next week.

Posted by: RedStater3 | October 27, 2010 7:13 AM | Report abuse

There is nothing quite so cringe-worthy as David Brooks trying to be funny. His best work introduces semi-arcane social and political thinkers to the mainstream -- as when he chooses the best essays of the year. But humor? No thanks, I'd rather see him on "Dancing With the Stars". Scratch that -- I don't want to see that either.

Posted by: reasonablemanMA | October 27, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Sorry to say it, but David Brooks is right on, Ezra. Why? Because the Democratic Party has been ineffectual in the public aspects of politics. To wit, it has not differentiated itself from the Republican Party in the public forum.

Actions may speak louder than words, but since actions do not take place in the public forum, words have to point to those actions. What is the Democratic Party missing? It needs to take a page from Franklin D. Roosevelt and talk about its solutions to America’s problems on radio and TV, not just on the Internet blogosphere. The Internet is where people go to find their cozy groupthink niche, but there is more probability of radio and TV being where everyone listens and watches together (especially 'moderates').

This is a United States of America that needs to be informed and stimulated into understanding what is going on and what needs doing, which is NOT what the Republican Party is about, and is what the Democratic Party SHOULD be about. Everyone already knows the Republican Party’s small-government, deregulatory, unilateral-diplomacy foolishness (sorry, Colin Powell, but it is true and you were played!). It is going to take a long time to live down (especially now that there is a ‘Tea Party’ movement trying to radicalize it). The Democratic Party, in my reading of David Brooks, is missing its opportunity to SHOW the contrast…by educating the public about the problems and its proposed solutions.

Posted by: episkyros | October 27, 2010 8:20 AM | Report abuse

It would be great if someone created a benchmark to judge the Ds losses on Election Day. For example, given their majorities and the off-year cycle, we could expect them to lose on average X number of seats. That way we can have a better judging their actual losses (Y) , by taking their difference X-Y. I feel sick now just thinking about about the spin and outright WAGs we are going to have to endure next week.

Posted by: fatinspanish | October 27, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

redstater3 said
Maybe it is sour grapes because the Forty Year Liberal Reich is over next week.What was 1994 till 2006? Dems just letting Repubs think they were in charge?

Posted by: michmac | October 27, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Actually, David Brooks is right on! His amusing satirical remarks might sound quite annoying among the so-called elite inside the beltway, but they invite knowing smiles in the vast ranks of the dumb unwashed voters of America's great interior.

Posted by: LouisWMcHardySr | October 27, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

one minor point:

there have been only THREE occurrences of no midterm loss since the Civil War--1934, 1998, 2002.

and, you're right. while david mayhew might be right in that reelection is the primary goal of politicians ("The Electoral Connection"), that is so they can achieve their other goals. and sometimes good policy (in the eye of the beholder) is a goal that is worth risking electoral loss.

Posted by: emperor_penguins | October 27, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

For those who don't remember back to 2005: Bush's proposal was to tweak Social Security to eliminate the projected long term shortfall, and then to create private accounts. The Democratic leadership was not willing to compromise on private accounts, but neither was Bush. If Bush had been willing to accept a clean bill, which eliminated the projected shortfall but didn't funnel large amounts of money to Wall Street in the form of management fees, he could have gotten it.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | October 28, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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