Describing what he sees as the relative powerlessness of talk radio, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote last week: “Let us take a trip back into history… It is the winter of 2007. The presidential primaries are approaching. The talk jocks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and the rest are over the moon about Fred Thompson. They’re weak at the knees at the thought of Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, they are hurling torrents of abuse at the unreliable deviationists: John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Yet somehow, despite the fervor of the great microphone giants, the Thompson campaign flops like a fish. Despite the schoolgirl delight from the radio studios, the Romney campaign underperforms. Meanwhile, Huckabee surges. Limbaugh attacks him, but social conservatives flock. Along comes New Hampshire and McCain wins! McCain wins the South Carolina primary and goes on to win the nomination. The talk jocks can’t even deliver the conservative voters who show up at Republican primaries. They can’t even deliver South Carolina!”
David Brooks is a man who does not, and probably cannot, understand a state like South Carolina. Nor does he understand talk radio, the conservative movement, or even himself.
Talk radio hosts gravitated toward Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney because both candidates best fit their ideal: non-threatening, marquee value GOP establishment types who project a “conservative” image, despite not having much of a record to match. The reason Mike Huckabee “surged” is because “values voters” cared more about electing one of their own than his lack of limited government credentials. John McCain won in South Carolina because the most military-heavy state in the union wanted to support a soldier, and the senator’s military record was valued more than his politics. Indeed, virtually every Republican who ran for president in 2008 represented a different form of identity politics on the Right.
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And so does Brooks. Brooks advocates the same neoconservative Republican politics that animated Thompson, Romney, Huckabee and McCain, and his differences with the current conservative movement are more style than substance. The New York Times columnist would like to see a conservatism that stays faithful to the policies of the Bush administration, yet with the temperament and air-of- respectability of a New York Times columnist. His criticism is almost entirely cosmetic.
Calling himself a “reformist” Brooks seeks a conservative movement less abrasive than talk radio, less Christian than Mike Huckabee and pretty much exactly like John McCain, sans Sarah Palin. This kindler, gentler, or dare I say “compassionate” conservatism, differs little from the Republican brand that got its butt kicked in 2008, or as The American Conservative’s Jim Antle writes: “Much of reformist conservatism is really an aesthetic judgment about the Republican Party and conservative movement… the reformists tended to support the very Bush-era policies that ushered in the Obama administration and Democratic congressional majorities. Virtually all of them favored invading Iraq. Although many of them now concede that the war did not go as well, pre-surge, as they had hoped, most of them continue to believe the decision to attack Iraq was justified. The Iraq War and the foreign-policy ideas that gave rise to it are conspicuous by their absence from reformists’ list of areas where Republicans or conservatives need to change.”
Indeed. And now Brooks and his ilk still argue over the righteousness of the war in Iraq, the need to stay in Afghanistan and are keeping a hawk’s eye on Iran. In the mind of Brooks, the Republicans didn’t lose the White House in 2008 because of George W. Bush, his policies or his wars – Americans were simply turned off by Sarah Palin. Brooks’ conservatism is anything but, and despite his rationalizations, the man is basically just a snob.
But if Brook’s snob conservatism, Thompson and Romney’s wannabe-Reagan-imitations, Huckabee’s holy-rolling and McCain’s mad-bomber mentality are all just stylistic variations of the same Republican policies, it is worth noting the one candidate in 2008 who attracted widespread, bipartisan support, based not only almost purely on his ideas – but ideas that stood in stark contrast to the rest of his party. Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign reflected the antiwar sentiment that helped elect Obama and the anti-government outrage that now defines the grassroots Right. Paul, unlike his fellow 2008 presidential contenders, not only rejected the failed policies of the Bush administration, but despite his lack of charisma, possessed the only political platform that might have had a chance of winning – while remaining conservative to the core.
But strict, limited government conservatism is of little concern to establishment men like Brooks, which makes him completely useless. Writes Antle: “the reformists, whose new ideas are not conservative and whose old ideas are the ones that destroyed the Bush GOP, are the very last pundits Republicans should heed.”
Indeed. And if the American Right needs a new, better identity – as many rightly believe it does – a good start might be to move as far away as possible from the politics and person of David Brooks.