In the wake of the presidential election, it was always going to fall to either David Brooks or Thomas Friedman to fill The New York Times op-ed pages with what they see as the most badly needed commodity in America: sophistry about centrism. And so it went that Friedman ― no doubt delayed by his quest to find nine new synonyms for “interconnectedness” ― was beaten to the punch by Brooks, who on Tuesday laid out “The Future of the American Center” ― which, as it turns out, sounds a lot like many past David Brooks columns. To no one’s surprise!
Brooks, like most sentient creatures, is alarmed that the next president looks for all the world to resemble that classic rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem. It’s understandable that he’s rattled by this. What’s less understandable, of course, is his generic call for a “movement ... that is part Milton Friedman on economic policy, Ronald Reagan on foreign policy and Franklin Roosevelt on welfare policy.”
Aside from the fact that this does not seem to be a workable combination (pairing Milton Friedman with FDR isn’t so much an innovation of ideology as much as a dark, gritty reboot of the fable of the scorpion and the frog), this is clearly not a thing for which anyone without a stable sinecure at a newspaper has ever expressed a desire. Not long ago, Brooks lamented that he’d not strayed particularly far from the “bourgeois strata” he calls home. There’s nothing in this column on the “future of the center” that suggests he’s made it as far as the end of his street in the meanwhile. That’s how I’d explain many of his risible ideas, anyway.
Brooks’ piece comes larded with assumptions about what the future holds that don’t really correspond to reality as it’s shaping up. First and foremost, he regards Trump’s ascension to the White House as an event that will definitely destroy party loyalty, insisting that Trump is “hostile to the Republican establishment” and that his “proposals cut across orthodox lines.”
Why, Trump is so hostile to the establishment that he’s going to offer Elaine Chao ― the former labor secretary and current lobbyist wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ― a Cabinet position! I tell you, I just don’t know how the Republican establishment is going to survive, beyond swimmingly.
As for Trump’s proposals, they include ramping up deportations, ramping down regulations, ending the Affordable Care Act, gutting Medicare, and a tax plan that favors the wealthy. This sounds pretty “orthodox.”
It’s not clear that Brooks really understands where the political fault lines are anymore. Somehow or another, he’s been allowed by professional newspaper editors to define the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party as the “alt-left.” No, sir! There are no ethno-nationalist or autocratic leanings to be found in the Sanders-Warren section of Congress. They are simply “the left,” full stop.
What Brooks describes as the “old guard” in the Democratic Party (the “Chuck Schumer-Nancy Pelosi” wing) is actually a relatively new breed of political movement that centers the affluent professional class and its advancement as its main ideological cause, while paying lip service to the sort of liberal social pieties that have particular salience among limousine liberals. (This is actually the closest thing America has to Brooks’ notion of “the center” ― all of the gay marriage and boardroom diversification without any of the labor rights or wealth redistribution ― he just can’t bring himself to admit it.)
But Brooks says the ever in-touch editor of The Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol, has assured him that resistance to Trump will take many forms from a Congress that will certainly break itself down into many multipolar mini-caucuses, and from this chaos there will be a New Centrist Order that will stand in “defense of the basic institutions and practices of our constitutional order.”
Which is a nice theory, for sure. Now, in practice, what’s happening is that the prevailing Republican leaders have signaled that they have absolutely no interest in mounting this defense. Brooks isn’t up on current events. He hasn’t heard that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is planning on taking a dive as far as Congressional oversight goes, or that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has declared that Trump’s many potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause to be no big deal.
In short, just because Brooks thought that the “joint statement” issued by Bill Kristol and Bill Galston calling for a “New Center” was well and truly dope, that doesn’t mean that congresspersons are going to take their cues from it. Sure sounds like there will be many sternly worded editorials in the future, however!
But the apotheosis of this piece comes when Brooks dredges up that great centrist failure of yesteryear, No Labels, in an attempt to reanimate its corpse:
The most active centrist organization, No Labels, began six years ago in opposition to polarized, cutthroat politics. The problem with the group back then was that there was no future to a political movement whose first name is “No.” You have to be for something.
But under the leadership of its undeterrable co-founder, Nancy Jacobson, No Labels has evolved. It created a package of reform ideas to make Congress and the executive branch work together. It created an active congressional caucus, called the Problem Solvers Caucus, which now has 80 members, divided roughly evenly between both parties.
No Labels, a python made of private equity money that is forever eating its own tail, is clearly not an organization that Brooks has kept up with over the years. Not only are its problems not merely limited to not being “for” anything (the organization has a long history of ducking fights that involve prominent members), this notion that it has “evolved” somehow is nonsense. As recently as 2014, this organization ― ostensibly dedicated to making Congress work effectively (mainly through the power of bipartisan seating and State Of The Union prom-dating!) ― was caught out by Yahoo News’ Meredith Shiner actively rooting for more dysfunction, so the group’s members would be more relevant to the donors they’d habitually fleeced.
And No Labels’ famous “Problem Solvers Caucus” ― the body that Brooks really believes will be the crucible for a new centrist movement ― is the Beltway’s biggest joke. It’s a caucus that asks nothing of members, and has yet to solve a single problem. But you don’t have to take my word for it, that the “Problem Solvers Caucus” is empty and meaningless is something that No Labels will happily cop to, if asked. Per Shiner:
While a group spokesperson told a local Denver Fox affiliate that the “seal” is an “implied endorsement,” No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush and John McCain strategist, said that anyone ... would be eligible for such a seal were they join the group [sic].
The “Problem Solver Seals” granted by No Labels to lawmakers require nothing of those members from a policy perspective, aside from agreeing to be part of No Labels, and to attend meetings with other No Labels members to discuss broad principles of bipartisanship. To be a member of No Labels, a politician needs to pledge to not take any pledge but the oath of office and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Yeah, this is an active group of busy lawmakers doing big-time stuff, man!
Of course, the most hilarious thing about Brooks looking to No Labels for solace and sanity in the age of Donald Trump is that he clearly hasn’t heard about one of the latest figures in American politics to earn that organization’s “Problem Solver” imprimatur. As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported in January:
The bipartisan good government group No Labels thanked six presidential candidates Monday for taking its “Problem Solver Promise,” commemorating the event with a New Hampshire event that none of the candidates attended in person. One seemed particularly distant from the Radisson in downtown Manchester: pledge-taker Donald Trump.
Well, that’s a little inconvenient.
What’s darkly amusing about all of this is that Brooks would have likely written this column if Hillary Clinton had won the election, even though she is the closest thing in politics to a weird Milton Friedman-Ronald Reagan-FDR amalgam that anyone could imagine, promising no savage redistribution of wealth beyond helping to diversify the boardrooms of the Fortune 500, and likely to have taken several runs at the sort of bipartisan “grand bargains” that Brooks often lionizes.
Needless to say, a Clinton win would have prompted Brooks to lash out against any perceived leftward tilt in the electorate, insisting on the country’s essential center-rightness and continually evincing the odd columnist tic that Jonathan Chait properly identifies in his work: “Indeed, one of the most common genres of David Brooks column was a sad lament that neither party would endorse policies that in fact Obama had explicitly and publicly called for.”
As Chait notes, Brooks’ compulsive desire to fit himself snugly at the center between one party willing to compromise and another party fully bent on installing itself inside a rubber room all but assured that the center would not hold. So now, the road back involves pimping No Labels’ non-agenda and waiting for Bill Kristol to provide Thought Leadership. To which the only plausible response is: “Jesus wept.”
Okay, then. I guess it’s Thomas Friedman’s turn in the barrel now.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.