Sunday, August 29, 2004

BROOKS'S FAVORITE REPUBLICANS. They're all dead! For just one day, at least, David Brooks the newly minted, hardcore conservative pundit has gone back to being David Brooks the thoughtful, slightly right-of-center moderate. In a long piece for today's New York Times Magazine, "How to Reinvent the G.O.P.," Brooks lays out the specifics of an overarching Brooksian political philosophy. It is a fine essay, yet it is also unintentionally hilarious.

Brooks harks back to 2000, when he and William Kristol made the case in the Weekly Standard for what they called "national-greatness conservatism" and hitched their wagon to the presidential campaign of John McCain. It was a courageous move, given the long odds facing McCain. The Standard, founded by Rupert Murdoch as a house organ for the newly ascendant Republican Party of the Gingrich era, found itself frozen out, at least until after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the GOP's interventionist McCain wing and the isolationist Bush wing came together. (There's a decent explanation of national-greatness conservatism - and of the roles played by Brooks, Kristol, and McCain - in this 2002 American Prospect article by Richard Just.)

What cracks me up about Brooks's piece are two things: the only Republicans and proto-Republicans he can find to say much nice about are Alexander Hamilton, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt; and the program Brooks lays out sounds a whole lot more New Democrat than Bush Republican: entitlement reform, social mobility, an end to corporate welfare, energy independence, and mandatory national service.

The most important Brooksian priority - what he calls "the war on Islamic extremism" - is, of course, something that George W. Bush has attempted to transform into a trademarked slogan of the Republican Party. But I've seen no evidence that real-world Democrats (that is, John Kerry, not Howard Dean) aren't just as committed to combating Islamist terrorists as Bush is. Perhaps rather more so, since Kerry presumably wouldn't have more than 100,000 troops tied up in Iraq while Osama bin Laden and company run free on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Brooks isn't calling his philosophy national-greatness conservatism anymore, and his attempts to come up with a new name are painful. He tries out "strong-government progressive conservatism," but though it does have the merit of actually describing his ideas to some extent, it doesn't exactly roll trippingly off the tongue.

Brooks's politics come across as a meld of the best of Bill Clinton and John McCain - a slightly more conservative version of the New Democrat agenda, which itself was quite a bit more conservative than the Democratic Party of George McGovern and Walter Mondale. Kerry ought to take a good, hard look at some of the ideas that Brooks is proposing. Why not? It's pretty clear that Bush won't.

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