ESPN Straw Man

Upon reading David Brooks’ latest odd, triple-jointed column on the presidential contest, I felt a moral obligation to untangle it, if only to show how he was building a narrative that would lead, just under the surface, to great comfort for Team Romney.

But then I discovered Ezra Klein had demolished the piece far more effectively than I could have:

“If you look at the fundamentals,” writes David Brooks, “the president should be getting crushed right now.”

The rest of the column is an attempt to explain why President Obama isn’t getting crushed right now. Brooks settles on Obama’s “version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.” But the premise of the column is wrong: If you look at the fundamentals right now, the president should not be getting crushed. In fact, he should be slightly ahead, which is pretty much where he is in most polls.

Brooks never actually defines what he means by “the fundamentals.” The evidence he provides in his column is mostly an assortment of recent poll results related to how voters feel about the economy, Obama’s plan for the economy, and Obama’s view of the role of government.

After explaining why Brooks’ measurements of “the fundamentals” are arbitrary and potentially very misleading, Ezra cites the real “fundamentals:”

Obama is the incumbent. The economy is growing at a moderate pace. There’s no serious third-party challenge. We’re not losing massive numbers of soldiers in a foreign war. And when you look at those fundamentals, the reality is this: Incumbent presidents very, very rarely lose under those conditions.

But Ezra’s burden here isn’t to defend his particular model of what “the fundamentals” would suggest about the outcome of the race, but simply to burn down the straw man Brooks has built based on the poorly substantiated claim that Obama oughtta be toast without his “ESPN masculinity,” which Brooks claims to find attractive but which sounds to me like a curse (who on ESPN is a model of this preboomer/postboomer hybrid? Lou Holtz? Craig James?).

Here’s Ezra’s broader point:

[T]his is one of my pet peeves in political commentary: Pundits take political situations that can be explained through the fundamentals and then attribute them, without any evidence, to the telegenic characteristics of individual politicians or the messaging decisions made by their campaigns. Then, a few years later, the fundamentals turn around, and suddenly our great communicator has forgotten how to give a speech or run a campaign — or vice versa.

Or, more to the point, pundits like David Brooks can deny an election outcome any substantive meaning if it suits his purpose.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.