The moderate crack-up, part 2

Within a few weeks of Barack Obama’s inauguration, David Brooks has confessed that “Barack Obama is not who we thought he was.” (The “we” to whom Brooks refers are “moderates,” among whom Brooks includes himself.) Somehow Brooks missed the signals that Obama was big-government liberal. Given the evidence that was available for his consideration, it’s a rather large oversight.

Brooks indicated that Obama had rung his chimes in a big way after Obama emerged victorious in the Iowa caucuses. His column on the Iowa caucuses celebrated Obama’s victory:

Obama has achieved something remarkable. At first blush, his speeches are abstract, secular sermons of personal uplift — filled with disquisitions on the nature of hope and the contours of change.

He talks about erasing old categories like red and blue (and implicitly, black and white) and replacing them with new categories, of which the most important are new and old. He seems at first more preoccupied with changing thinking than changing legislation.

Yes, Obama talks a good game. Brooks had fallen hard for Obama. In October Brooks again expressed his admiration of Obama with reference to his intellect, this time by contrast with Sarah Palin:

Obama has the great intellect. I was interviewing Obama a couple years ago, and I’m getting nowhere with the interview, it’s late in the night, he’s on the phone, walking off the Senate floor, he’s cranky. Out of the blue I say, “Ever read a guy named Reinhold Niebuhr?” And he says, “Yeah.” So I say, “What did Niebuhr mean to you?” For the next 20 minutes, he gave me a perfect description of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought, which is a very subtle thought process based on the idea that you have to use power while it corrupts you. And I was dazzled, I felt the tingle up my knee as Chris Matthews would say.

In his column this week, Brooks prefaces his dissent from Obama in office with comments identifying areas of agreement with him: “We [moderates] sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.”

It is telling that Brooks adopts the Clintonian euphemism of “investment” with respect to welfare programs and government energy boondoggles. Why is government occupation of the field of higher education lending a good thing? What useful innovation does government spending on energy promise to bring? Is it possible for the government to expand health care coverage while reducing costs by any means other than rationing and redistribution? How has it worked out with Medicare?

Brooks’s belated awakening to Obama’s project is a good thing. Given the depth of the regard he has expressed for Obama, it is also admirable. if Brooks were to work at it outside the confines set by his gig as a columnist for the New York Times, he could surely think his way back to a principled conservatism.


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