Hell, or, A Conversation with Brooks and Collins

This is your brain on drugs.I have a new vision of Hell, which is sitting around the “conversation pit” getting stoned with New York Times columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. Apparently, the two get together and talk about issues for the newspaper’s Opinionator blog every Wednesday. To borrow a phrase from Supreme Court Nominee and current Solicitor General Elena Kagan, I wish they wouldn’t.

This week, the Dullard Duo took on one of the vital economic questions of the times: Deficit reduction or job creation?

Gail Collins: David, I was very interested in your column attacking the idea of a second stimulus. In fact, I was so interested that I almost put down my copy of this week’s New York Magazine, which has a big profile of you and your “charming, levelheaded optimism.” I agree totally with that assessment, although I part company with the author when it comes to your suits, which are certainly not shapeless.

The article also says that because of your book deadlines, you are only getting four hours of sleep a night. So I feel terrible asking you to converse about anything, let alone the economy.

David Brooks: My suits are absolutely shapeless. They are sartorial cumulus clouds. Given my body, shapeless is the best option, believe me. Other than that, I thought the profiler was admirably gentle and forgiving.

I’d like to say things could only get better from there, but … yeah. I’d also like to say it would be enlightening to hear an actual recording of this conversation in order to pick up some of the nuance, but, again … er … yeah. Continue reading

This is your brain on America

David Brooks recently bucked the trend of looking back at the decade most of us would like to forget in order to prognosticate about the next ten years. Okay, so that’s just trading one trend for another, but at least I’m not going on about the Bono article.

In almost every sphere of public opinion, Americans are moving away from the administration, not toward it. The Ipsos/McClatchy organizations have been asking voters which party can do the best job of handling a range of 13 different issues. During the first year of the Obama administration, the Republicans gained ground on all 13.

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

A year ago, the Obama supporters were the passionate ones. Now the tea party brigades have all the intensity.

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

I’m always hesitant to fall back on the whole “people are stupid” idea, or divide my view of right and wrong according to education. But it’s not just the Bush years, the “naughty oughties”, or whatever we might call the last ten years; rather, almost the whole of the period in which my political conscience has been active has been defined by the difference between being smart or stupid.

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Obama and expectation

Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman brings us, with his latest column, an assessment of Senator Barack Obama, considering the Democratic presidential candidate in the context of two other elections, those of 1980 and 1992:

It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton? ….

…. Reagan, for better or worse — I’d say for worse, but that’s another discussion — brought a lot of change. He ran as an unabashed conservative, with a clear ideological agenda. And he had enormous success in getting that agenda implemented. He had his failures, most notably on Social Security, which he tried to dismantle but ended up strengthening. But America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office.

Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change, but it was much less clear what kind of change he was offering. He portrayed himself as someone who transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divide, proposing “a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.” The economic plan he announced during the campaign was something of a hodgepodge: higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for the middle class, public investment in things like high-speed rail, health care reform without specifics.

We all know what happened next. The Clinton administration achieved a number of significant successes, from the revitalization of veterans’ health care and federal emergency management to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and health insurance for children. But the big picture is summed up by the title of a new book by the historian Sean Wilentz: “The Age of Reagan: A history, 1974-2008.”

While there are also fundamental differences in the context of the circumstances under which the Reagan and Clinton presidencies occurred, Krugman—who during the primary often criticized Obama—is not without a valid point. Having achieved the nomination, Obama has followed a trend disturbing to American liberals, one that suggests a transformation of the candidate into a different kind of political creature. His withdrawal from public financing, while understandable in a political context, is disappointing, to say the least, for liberals hopeful of a president of principles. And his support of the recent FISA “compromise” ranges into the realm of the frustrating.
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Thoughts on the improbable

As the dust settles in Iowa and the field of contenders begins to dwindle, Jeff Zeleny offers this analysis for the New York Times:

Whether it was because they were eager to leave behind the bitter divides of the last two decades or because they wanted to send a message that a small white state could transcend the issue of race, Iowa voters handed Senator Barack Obama a victory here Thursday and supported his improbable candidacy in defiance of those who warned he was too inexperienced in world affairs.

Now, I admit there is a good feeling about Obama’s Iowa victory, in no small part because Hillary Clinton is, essentially, my bottom-shelf candidate. I’ll support her in the general election without doubt, but I would prefer the Democratic Party put up almost any other candidate. I have my reasons. Some of them have to do with her womanhood. Some have to do with her name. And some have to do with the fact that I can barely tell she’s a Democrat.

But this isn’t about Hillary Clinton. This is about Barack Obama and his “improbable candidacy”.

Those two words—improbable candidacy—strike me oddly, because it was after the rising star from Illinois delivered his now-famous “Audacity of Hope” speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention that I first started hearing about the idea of Barack Obama for president. His election to the U.S. Senate seemed a mere stepping stone, a prerequisite to satisfy those who wanted a candidate with federal experience. Indeed, we can take a strange sort of comfort in John Kerry’s befuddling defeat in 2004 because it brings us the Obama run this year, instead of in 2012.

The idea seems almost silly, but the truth is that the party has been grooming Obama for this run, and Democratic supporters have been nearly salivating over the last four years at the thought of being able to send a black man to the White House.

And the press has played along. As the conservative shills over at MediaResearch.org mourned in the wake of the 2004 convention, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews exclaimed that he had just seen the first black President.

And perhaps we did. Perhaps it was our misplaced confidence in the Kerry campaign that pushed away those thoughts of President Obama. Foolishly thinking there was no way the country could possibly endorse a second term for George W. Bush, the idea of President Obama seemed something to talk about for the 2012 election.

But a second Bush term is what we ended up with, and what we have suffered through, and while there is certainly a list of suspects to blame—very few of whom are Muslim, foreign, or classified as terrorists—in the end the People can only blame themselves. Democrats and liberals can complain all they want about whether or not Ohio was stolen, but the truth of the matter is that it never should have been so close in the first place. Iowa Caucus turnoutMr. Zeleny credits the Obama candidacy with nearly doubling the turnout at this year’s Iowa caucuses, although a graphic accompanying the story reminds that the 2004 election also saw a doubling of the prior cycle. So while Obama fever is an impossible phenomenon to deny, we might also look to the suggestion of the first female president as contributing to the increased enthusiasm.

And what of the real improbability here, which is not a candidacy but the ongoing disaster of the Bush administration? I do not know how Iowans regard our northern neighbors, but reports of parity between American and Canadian currency and the subsequent woes of Canadian booksellers unsettled more than a few in some border states where transnational commerce is almost second nature. It seems fair to wonder if the state of the union, as such, contributed any to the Iowa turnout. The Bush debacle has been such that the economy has moved to the fore, and more than the war in Iraq presidential candidates seem to be playing to voters’ concerns about health care.

Indeed, the Bush Wars, once a vital theme of GOP discourse, has begun to cost the party dearly. Jackie Calmes and Michael M. Phillips reported last month, for the Wall Street Journal:

For months, Dale Albright, a 30-year-old Tampa, Fla., bankruptcy lawyer, has watched as his clients buckle under mortgage and credit-card debts. After an expensive recent hospital stay, he’s worried that a run of bad luck could leave him in financial straits, too.

“I care about bringing our troops home…and for the most part, I believe as far as domestic terrorism goes, I think we’ve got that pretty much under control,” Mr. Albright says. “But the economy really scares me.” A longtime Republican, this election he says he’s voting Democrat ….

…. Fifty-two percent of Americans say the economy and health care are most important to them in choosing a president, compared with 34% who cite terrorism and social and moral issues, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. That is the reverse of the percentages recorded just before the 2004 election. The poll also shows that voters see health care eclipsing the Iraq war for the first time as the issue most urgently requiring a new approach.

The figures partly reflect the better news from Iraq, where security has improved since the U.S. added troops and cut deals with Sunni Muslim tribal leaders. Some voters link the issues of the economy and Iraq. Richard Scown, a 61-year-old equipment-lease broker in Las Vegas, frets about “all the money we’re spending there, and all the issues we have here.”

Mr. Scown, a lifelong Republican, says he and his wife probably will vote for the Democratic nominee. “The Republicans haven’t shown anything yet to suggest they’ve got a clue about the direction we’re going with the economy,” he says.

The United States is enduring a precipitous slide many would have thought improbable at the start of the Bush years. Indeed, even those who sneered that Gore would have handled the Enron collapse better did not seriously predict we could find the nation in such a slump six years later. Politically, there is only so much ill will one can wish upon the opposition. Those of us who shrugged at the 2004 outcome and said, “This is what the people want,” did not imagine they asked for this.

While there is much focus on sex and skin color, and the question of the Boomer generation hangs over the cycle, it seems difficult to justify the focus on any one candidate. In this case it’s Obama, and if one doubts how skewed that focus has become in the wake of the Iowa caucuses, simply check in with Mr. Zeleny’s New York Times colleague David Brooks, whose Redfernesque analysis will bring a smile to the faces of regular Doonesbury readers.

Is Obama the Democratic nominee? It is far too early to tell. Polls showed Obama leading Iowa, but Hillary Clinton leading in New Hampshire (Jan. 8), and dominating Michigan (Jan. 15) and Nevada (Jan. 19). South Carolina (Jan. 26) is close, but the numbers in Florida (Jan. 29) suggest a Clinton win in the panhandle. Theoretically, we could see Mega-Tuesday arrive with Hillary Clinton having won four states to Obama’s two. Maybe if Obama rides Iowa to a New Hampshire win, it will be time to talk of earthquakes, but for now the man who was, in 2004, anointed by many to be the next Democratic nominee faces steep challenges through the rest of the month. He poll strongest in South Carolina, and just as his win in Iowa might upset the balance in New Hampshire, a string of second-place finishes behind Clinton could just as easily weaken his position among Palmetto voters.

Congratulations to Senator Obama for his Iowa win. I wish him and his colleagues only the best. But if we wish to give him all the credit that is his due, it is simply too early for some of the praise being poured upon him. In truth, the rush to melodrama does a disservice to everyone involved. Mr. Obama is an excellent candidate; the voters are as awake and aware as they have been in years; and the press simply ought to know better. Let us remember that this election about the people of the United States and their future. It is not about advert revenues or nifty awards that look good on a journalist’s curriculum vitae.