Thursday, April 17, 2008


In a debate post-mortem last night, David Brooks went contrarian on us and said that ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos asked brilliant, thoroughly relevant questions -- because it's a good thing to ask about issues that seem insignificant or tangential.

Funny thing, though -- Brooks didn't always feel that way.

Here's Brooks just after last night's debate:

...Democrats, and especially Obama supporters, are going to jump all over ABC for the choice of topics: too many gaffe questions, not enough policy questions.

I understand the complaints, but I thought the questions were excellent. The journalist's job is to make politicians uncomfortable, to explore evasions, contradictions and vulnerabilities. Almost every question tonight did that....

We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall. Remember how George H.W. Bush toured flag factories to expose Michael Dukakis. It's legitimate to see how the candidates will respond to these sorts of symbolic issues....

Now here's Brooks in a sneering review he published last August of The Political Brain by Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University:

...Westen urges Democratic candidates to go for the gut, and includes a number of speeches that he wishes Democratic candidates had given. He wishes, for example, Al Gore had hit George Bush harder for being a drunk. He wishes Gore had interrupted a presidential debate and barked at Bush, "If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings."

At another point, he imagines Gore exploding: "Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbors' kids? Where I come from, we call that a drunk." If Democrats would go for people's primitive passions in this way, Westen argues, they'd win elections.

This thesis raises some interesting questions. First, why did someone with so little faith in rational inquiry go into academia, and what does he do to those who disagree with him at Emory faculty meetings, especially recovering alcoholics?

...Finally, if voter decisions are driven by the sort of crude emotional outbursts Westen recommends, ... then shouldn't we abandon this whole democracy thing? Shouldn't we have a coup, led perhaps by the Emory psychology department, which could prevent the brutish and hate-filled from ever gaining control? ...

So, let's sum up. It's OK for reporters to hammer Obama on flag pins and incidental contact with '60s radicals. It's OK for Poppy Bush to run an Atwater campaign based on Michael Dukakis's alleged attitude toward the flag. Reporters and Republicans can always attack Democrats.

But a Democrat (or a pro-Democratic college professor) attacking a Republican in a similar way? Heaven forfend.

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