Tuesday, April 21, 2009


In today's column, David Brooks seems rather astonished -- and worried and offended -- because Barack Obama is not wearing a bandolier and a Che shirt and talking about economics in terms of class warfare. Here's Brooks on Obama's recent economics speech in Georgetown:

Obama's chief concern was not inequality. It was irresponsibility. Obama didn't sound like an economic liberal at Georgetown. He sounded like a cultural conservative.

America once had a responsible economic culture, Obama argued. People used to save their pennies to buy their dream houses. Banks used to lend by "traditional standards." Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to stick to their "traditional mandate." Companies like A.I.G. used to limit themselves to the "traditional insurance business."

But these traditions broke down, Obama continued. They were swamped by irresponsibility. Businesspeople chased "short-term profits" over long-term investments. Smart people spent more time manipulating numbers and symbols than actually making things. Americans consumed too much and saved too little. America became corrupted by "excessive debt," "reckless speculation" and "fleeting profits."

Obama vowed to end this irresponsibility and the cycle of boom and bust. It’s time to get back to basics, he said. He embraced tradition, order and authority. He quoted the New Testament and argued that it is time that the U.S. built its economic house on rock and not sand.

Where's the surprise here? Obama's grandmother was a VP at the Bank of Hawaii. He had a chance growing up to be exposed to non-turbocharged capitalism. Obama -- as these two articles by David Leonhardt in The New York Times Magazine make clear, is a believer in the market even though he recognizes that it is known to fail, and he also knows that we need prosperity that doesn't come from financial chicanery and bubbles.

Brooks seems particularly worried -- and offended -- that Obama's approach might destroy the notion that the GOP is the party of ordinary Joes and Janes. Brooks apparently thinks that Republicans -- the party of Hollywood Ronald Reagan, Phil "UBS" Gramm, and the Bush dynasty -- deserve ordinary Joes and Janes. If the party of FDR takes them back, that's theft!

If Republicans aren't nervous, they should be. Obama is arguing for his activist agenda not on the basis of class-consciousness, which is alien to America, but as a defense of middle-class morality, which is central to it. Obama is positioning the Democrats as the party of order, responsibility and small-town values. If he pulls this mantle away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics.

(Emphasis mine.)

I think Brooks almost gets it -- up to a point, he realizes that Republicans have failed America miserably. But "train robbery"? Sorry -- there's still a part of Brooks who's waving an autographed copy of Bobos in Paradise and shouting, "Arugula! Swiss-water decaf! Um, Sub-Zero refrigerators! Come on, Middle America, you can't be serious about abandoning Republicans for those people! Pay no attention to all the tax cuts for the rich! Republicans are your real friends!"

What he doesn't realize is that Middle America doesn't see the GOP as "the party of order, responsibility and small-town values." Order? The economy fell into chaos on the GOP's watch. Responsibility? Under the GOP, fat cats got away with murder. Small-town values? It wasn't bankers' kids who died by the thousands for a lie in Iraq.

Obama can't seize that mantle from the GOP in any event. The GOP lost it a long time ago.

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