David Brooks—a Yale instructor and New York Times columnist who can be found at the Aspen Ideas Festival—prefers to package himself as a reasonable thinker, but he has always been, to one degree or another, depending on the season, a dumb partisan hack. So now that he has finished enough philosophizing about the good life to fill a new book (and allusively air out his squalid midlife crisis), and now that there’s an election looming, it’s time to get back to partisan hackwork.
In today’s Times, Brooks considers the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and how it fits into the current political environment. Or rather, he makes a show of considering Clinton’s candidacy as he serves up a ready-mixed set of Republican campaign talking points—a tall, freshly stirred cup of Bill Kristol Light.
He begins, as he must, by praising the Democratic presumed front-runner. She “hasn’t gone crazy,” he writes. Rather than than “drifting toward Bernie Sanders/Occupy Wall Street-style rhetoric,” her most recent speech was “the sort of speech you give if you spend more time listening to voters, especially female ones, than studying the quintiles in the income distribution charts.”
David Brooks, author of pop-sociology books, does not approve of policy arguments based on facts and statistics. Possibly that is because he perceives facts and statistics as an opportunity for dishonest people to work mischief.
In passing, as Brooks explains why we are not seeing a far-left economic agenda from a multimillionaire candidate who previously represented the nation’s capital city of finance in the Senate, he refers to “the more radical policy ideas embraced by the left, such as a blanket tax on the rich.”
For a student of history like Brooks, this is a peculiar turn of phrase: This country has used a progressive income-tax structure, in which the rich pay a higher rate, for more than 100 years now; the top tax rate is a little under 40 percent, well below the rates from FDR’s presidency through Reagan’s first term. Raising taxes on the rich is, historically, the most mainstream and straightforward way to fund government programs that benefit the non-rich.
But David Brooks is writing on behalf of the Republican Party, and the party is now built around opposition to traditional norms of taxation. So taxing the rich is ruled out entirely—it is an idea from “the class warfare fever swamps.”
Does this mean that David Brooks supports Hillary Clinton’s moderation? As a habitue of the Northeast Corridor, a bookable Thought Leader, does he endorse her “wonky authenticity”?
“She has echoes of Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern in her voice,” he writes, “or a more liberal Michael Dukakis.”
A more liberal Michael Dukakis. Looking back through history, with an intellectual detachment, David Brooks identifies the current Democratic favorite with three Democratic candidates who collected an average of 106 1/3 electoral votes and lost an average of 42 states apiece.
Clinton is, he concludes, committed to “neopaleoliberalism”:
As a neopaleoliberal, Hillary Clinton used her kickoff economic address to embrace the idea that government can write rules to govern how much companies pay their workers. Government can direct investors toward more sensible long-term investments. Government can refashion the way companies distribute equity in their companies. Government can determine how companies should structure and manage themselves. “We’ll ensure that no firm is too complex to manage and oversee,” Clinton declared. One pictures squads of Federal Simplicity Enforcers roaming through the corridors of Midtown Manhattan telling C.E.O.s when their outfits are too mind-boggling.
Does one picture that? Jackbooted bureaucrats forcing central planning on dynamic American businesspeople? Or does one want other people to picture that?
“Personally I find this faith epistemologically naive,” Brooks writes. He has judiciously examined the beliefs he assigns to Hillary Clinton—a rampaging blind confidence that the government can dictate the best way to do everything—and found them unsatisfactory. “Clinton’s unchastened faith in the power of government planning is not shared by most voters,” Brooks writes. Not that he’s trying to tell anyone which way to vote!