Mr. Bobo’s Dilemma
October 14, 2008
David “Babbling” Brooks has built a career on being Mr. Mild-Mannered Conservative: He doesn’t foam at the mouth or let his eyes bug out on television, and he’s a smooth hand at blending winger talking points with centrist rhetoric. But the obvious insanity and mendacity of the McCain-Palin flea circus has put him in a serious bind, and the last few weeks of Brooks columns show him veering from flack ro hack and back again. Jim Sleeper explains Mr. Bobo’s dilemma:
Ever since it has become clear that McCain is unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign, not least by choosing his horror show of a running mate, Brooks has been squirming and stumbling furiously toward a reckoning that should be of some interest to every Times reader and would-be public intellectual.
This time, the choice facing Brooks is too stark and time-bound for his usual gyrations. He can maintain his intellectual self-respect only by breaking openly with McCain/Palin in the next couple of weeks.
I wrote here months ago that I could almost imagine him jumping to Obama, as some conservative Republicans have done because they’ve concluded that more Bush-style governance will destroy both Republicans and the republic. Surely David Brooks, who has made a career of being liberals’ favorite conservative, can do likewise.
Then again, breaking so starkly with Republicans would cost Brooks his comfortable raison d’etre and niche opposite Mark Shields on PBS and E.J. Dionne on NPR. I don’t think that he has enough integrity to renounce decisively what McCain and, more generally, conservative republicans have become. I think he’s gotten himself stuck in that fold.
Brooks can try to dig up new reasons to support McCain/Palin, or he can join neoconservative Field Marshall William Kristol — who is drawing on his tremendous accomplishments with Dan Quayle and Alan Keyes — in calling for a thorough McCain-campaign makeover. But trying to rescue McCain/Palin would cost Brooks the respect even of some neoconservatives and conservatives — from Ed Koch to George Will and even Charles Krauthammer — who’ve actually or virtually endorsed Obama for the sake of the republic.
More likely, Brooks will try to wheedle his way out of making any choice at all. He could resort to his default position as a disinterested observer, emitting ever-loftier platitudes about Obama’s sagacity and Palin’s pugnacity that purport to help us poor partisans see beyond our narrow horizons while leaving him safely up on the hill, watching the battle in the valley below.
Brooks is in a tough spot. His first book, a genial pop sociological tome called Bobos in Paradise, landed him the Times op-ed gig but it hasn’t had much of a shelf life, and his followup book, On Paradise Drive, quickly became a laughingstock. He’s the odd man out among the paper’s marquee columnists. Thomas Friedman writes bestsellers and is omnipresent on squawk shows — he’s invulnerable. Paul Krugman just won a Nobel Prize. Maureen Dowd hasn’t done an honest day’s work in years, but a Pulitzer is a Pulitzer. Bob Herbert and Nicholas Kristof are reporters at heart, and they can always fall back on that. William Kristol is wrong about everything and a comically obvious propagandist to boot, but he’s got the Weekly Standard and a steady career as a GOP aparatchik once the Times gets sick of running corrections on his columns and pulls the plug. Brooks’ sinecure is based on his image as a cuddly conservative, and once that’s gone, he’s got nothing. What’s a hack to do?