Frank Bruni's embarrassingly dumb midterm column: Why the NYT columnist should spare us his hot takes

The smarmy columnist's latest doozy is a spectacular panoply of false equivalence and lazy, armchair analysis

Published November 3, 2014 4:33PM (EST)

Frank Bruni             (AP/Yanina Manolova)
Frank Bruni (AP/Yanina Manolova)

Frank Bruni, the former New York Times restaurant critic who moved to the paper's op-ed page in 2011, is arguably the Gray Lady's worst opinion columnist -- and that's saying something. The Times' opinion pages afflict us, after all, with the hot takes of such characters as Tom Friedman, Maureen Dowd, David Brooks, and Ross Douthat. But Friedman is at least a fun hate read, constantly confounding us with his fourth-rate prose and his often utterly incoherent analysis of international affairs. Meanwhile, as with a train wreck, it can be hard to look away from the phoned-in drivel spouted by Dowd, the Times' armchair psychoanalyst of political personalities, and Brooks, the paper's pop sociologist and in-house expert on made-up phenomena like the scourge of "partyism." And Douthat admittedly offers a window into the minds of social conservative scolds, penning columns that reveal a preternatural fascination with women's reproductive lives and railing against the specter of a Roman Catholic Church that's insufficiently hostile to women, gays, and divorcees. Bruni, on the other hand, brings nothing to the table but sappy holiday card platitudes and political analysis that's either bland or completely clueless.

Bruni's Sunday Review column falls into the latter category. In it, Bruni laments that the midterms have been devoid of "real substance," with no candidates offering voters "originality, authenticity and a pledge to tear up the dreary political script of recent years and lead us into a future that we’re ceasing to believe in." I'm not going to pretend that this has been a particularly edifying election year, what with the GOP's hysterical and opportunistic fear-mongering over the Islamic State and Ebola, the party's unwillingness to chart a post-election agenda, and the shameless efforts of right-wing Senate candidates like Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst to shroud their extreme positions in folksy rhetoric and campaign stump charisma. Capitalizing on public unease with an economy whose recovery has disproportionately benefited an elite few, and ever-mindful that fear can be a powerful electoral weapon, the GOP has opted to run a characteristically substance-free campaign. Democrats, on the other hand, have largely campaigned on support for increasing the minimum wage, shoring up a still-fragile economy, opposing the GOP's assault on reproductive freedom, and, in states like Colorado and even rust-belt Michigan, combating climate change.

But Bruni is a Very Serious Person, so to him, Both Sides Are To Blame™ for the sorry state of our political discourse:

In Iowa, Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley talked of Harleys, hogs and chickens. In Florida, Charlie Crist and Rick Scott bickered over a fan. In Colorado, Mark Udall’s focus was more womb-centric than “The Handmaid’s Tale.” While I believe strongly in reproductive freedom and salute him for defending it, I also wish I could tell you, without intensive research, what sort of script he has for restoring this country’s confidence.

Actually, "Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley" have not been campaigning on motorcycles, hogs, and chickens in Iowa. It was Ernst who ran a campaign commercial featuring herself riding to a gun range in a motorcycle, who released another ad talking up her experience castrating hogs, and who assailed Braley over his dispute with a neighbor over chickens that had wandered onto the Braleys' vacation property. Down in Florida, meanwhile, it's true that Crist and Scott's pre-debate tussle over Crist's fan made headlines, but did Bruni bother to watch the candidates spar over issues like education, climate change, and the economy? Better, it seems, to seize on one cringe-worthy spectacle that fits your preconceived midterm narrative than to do a few minutes' worth of research into the issues the two candidates have debated. Most appalling, though, is Bruni's criticism of Udall for his "womb-centric campaign." Coming in a column that bemoans the midterms' lack of substantive focus, this criticism is particularly mystifying and, to be honest, insulting. Try telling the women who would lose access to abortion and many contraceptives that Cory Gardner's continued support for federal personhood legislation isn't an issue worth emphasizing. But Bruni, the champion of an elevated and serious political dialogue, would rather have Udall discuss that completely tangible variable called "confidence."

Bruni's column gets no better when he attempts to flesh out what a Republican Senate victory would mean. "The turnover in the chamber will be a retort to the status quo, which is a Democratic Senate majority, along with a Democratic president," Bruni writes. "If you’re the candidate of continuity and sameness, whether a Republican or a Democrat, you’re quite likely vulnerable," he later adds. "That’s why Udall’s aides raised a stink when his opponent, Cory Gardner, ran a TV commercial underscoring the generations of politicians in the Udall family. Udall said it represented an out-of-bounds personal attack, which was ridiculous. What it did was weld Udall to the status quo, and that rightly spooked him."

But is Udall at risk because he represents "continuity and sameness," or because he's running in a purple state in a midterm election year that favors the Republicans? If being the candidate of "continuity and sameness" means that "you're quite likely vulnerable," then why is Sen. Ed Markey, who's been in Congress since the Ford administration, coasting to election in Massachusetts? Why is Thad Cochran poised to win a seventh Senate term in Mississippi? Why are Kentucky voters ready to send Mitch McConnell, a 30-year incumbent, back to the U.S. Senate for another six years? Why is Udall's cousin Tom Udall, a senator from New Mexico and a 16-year veteran of Congress, leading his Republican opponent by double digits? Could it be that voters aren't rebelling against "continuity and sameness," but that, to quote one pundit, Tuesday's results will ultimately "reflect the particularities of the individual races and states themselves" -- demographics, turnout, their political histories? That pundit, by the way, was Frank Bruni, writing in the very same column.

In just over 24 hours, this dreadful midterm campaign will come to a close. But long after the votes have been counted and the balance of power has been determined, Bruni will continue to make our eyes bleed with his insufferable smarm and embarrassing cluelessness.

By Luke Brinker

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