David Brooks' latest embarrassment: When a "reasonable" conservative is just a right-wing hack

The columnist's latest work is a spectacular display of intellectual dishonesty and cheap analysis

Published November 18, 2014 7:13PM (EST)

David Brooks                                 (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

There's a certain subset of liberals -- including President Barack Obama -- who laud New York Times columnist David Brooks as a sober, reasonable, intellectually serious conservative. In the anti-intellectual age of Sarah Palin, Louie Gohmert and Joni Ernst, here's a conservative writer who name-checks Reinhold Niebuhr, George Eliot and Edmund Burke. No troglodyte on social issues, Brooks is mildly pro-choice and a long-standing supporter of marriage equality. He might pen some pretty pathetic pieces of pop sociology, but at least he's a mostly levelheaded pundit, the thinking goes.

Well, no. Brooks' latest column demonstrates that despite the persistent fantasy that he's the responsible, serious conservative, he's more than capable of playing the right-wing hack. Two weeks after the Democrats' midterm drubbing, Brooks assails President Barack Obama's "bizarre" behavior, wondering why the president appears insufficiently humiliated by the Republican rout.

Brooks -- normally content to pine for aristocratic Britain, where the political culture is "dominated by people who live in London and who have often known each other since prep school" -- now wonders why Obama just won't listen to us folks.

"Usually presidents use midterm defeats as a chance to rethink and refocus," he writes. "That’s what Obama did four years ago. Voters like to feel the president is listening to them."

Here we pause to note that turnout in this year's midterms amounted to just 36.3 percent of eligible voters -- the lowest rate in 72 years. Obama, like it or not, is also president of the other 63.7 percent.

At any rate, Brooks bemoans the "partisanship" he alleges Obama has exhibited these past two weeks. The president's expected veto of legislation approving the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance,  shows "that Democrats, too, can put partisanship above science," Brooks asserts:

Keystone XL has been studied to the point of exhaustion, and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it’s a modest-but-good idea. The latest State Department study found that it would not significantly worsen the environment. The oil’s going to come out anyway, and it’s greener to transport it by pipeline than by train. The economic impact isn’t huge, but at least there’d be a $5.3 billion infrastructure project.

Yes, opposing the construction of a pipeline that renowned climate scientist James Hansen concludes would be "game over for the climate" is totally the same thing as Republican science denial on climate change and evolution. Sure, the pipeline might encourage further development of dirty tar sands oil and create no more than 35 permanent jobs, but it's an infrastructure project! While we're at this whole building stuff business, why not also prepare a massive military buildup for a possible Martian invasion? The administration's proposal to give states and local governments $35 billion to save and create public sector jobs -- a proposal rejected by Republicans -- would've done far more for employment, but hiring a bunch of teachers and firefighters would've been "partisan" and big government-y!

Even more embarrassing than Brooks' Keystone idiocy is the shameless intellectual dishonesty he brings to his discussion of Obama's forthcoming executive order sparing up to 5 million people from deportation.

"The president was in no rush to issue this order through 2014, when it might have been politically risky," Brooks notes. "He questioned whether he had the constitutional authority to do this through most of his first term, when he said that an executive order of this sort would probably be illegal."

It's true that Obama made ill-advised remarks about the legality of executive action -- perhaps miscalculating that his comments would spur Congress to act on the issue -- but presidential use of prosecutorial discretion to grant deportation relief is far from unprecedented. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both exercised their executive authority to spare unauthorized immigrants from deportation, and their moves didn't draw the howls of protest that Obama's as yet unsigned order has.

But don't get Brooks wrong: "substantively," he agrees with Obama's stance on immigration reform. But "the process" Obama is likely to use would hurt Republicans' feelings:

Republicans would rightly take it as a calculated insult and yet more political ineptitude. Everybody would go into warfare mode. We’ll get two more years of dysfunction that will further arouse public disgust and antigovernment fervor (making a Republican presidency more likely).

And because Republicans will throw a temper tantrum in response to Obama's executive action, Brooks concludes, it's "much less likely that we’ll have immigration reform anytime soon."

As it just so happens, the very reason Obama is likely to act unilaterally is because congressional Republicans have made perfectly clear that we won't have immigration reform any time soon. Even though a comprehensive reform bill passed the Senate by a 68 to 32 margin last year, House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the measure up for a House vote, and the right-wing crop of Republicans taking office in January won't be any more receptive to acting on the issue. Even if Obama scrapped his plans for an executive order, it's virtually certain that Congress wouldn't pass a comprehensive bill; Boehner still refuses to commit to holding a vote.

Brooks comes truly unhinged when he warns of the consequences of executive action, ignoring Reagan and Bush's earlier actions to depict an Obama order as an unprecedented move toward making us "a nation of diktats":

Instead of a nation of laws, we could slowly devolve into a nation of diktats, with each president relying on and revoking different measures on the basis of unilateral power — creating unstable swings from one presidency to the next. If President Obama enacts this order on the transparently flimsy basis of “prosecutorial discretion,” he’s inviting future presidents to use similarly flimsy criteria. Talk about defining constitutional deviancy down.

Ted Cruz couldn't have said it better.

In the end, Obama's move toward executive action signals that the White House is playing its own "obstruction" card, Brooks argues, naively or disingenuously implying that the GOP would be more willing to cooperate with a chastened Obama. We saw how that played out during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, when Obama proposed drastic cuts in the social safety net in an ill-fated effort to reach a "grand bargain" with recently empowered congressional Republicans.

There's nothing particularly unique about Brooks' newest drivel. These are the thoughts regularly spouted by right-wing bloviators convinced that Obama is a lawless autocrat bent on upending America. In a perfect world, his column would sound the death knell for the myth of Brooks the reasonable conservative.

By Luke Brinker

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