Possum Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks’ usual M.O. is to position himself as an immensely reasonable centrist who views political conflict from a great height, mocking the foibles of unreasonable ideologues before descending to earth, usually at a spot where his insights happen to coincide with the tactical needs of the Republican Party at any given moment.

But every now and then he explodes in wrath at the extremist folly of his preferred party, if only to scold it for insufficient intelligence in pursuing its goals. His column today is one of those occasions. Entitled “Possum Republicans,” it’s an extended rant about the weakness of the GOP Establishment in the face of the unreasonable demands for ideological purity issuing from “the wingers.” As a stand-alone indictment, it’s pretty strong stuff:

Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength. Under their influence, we’ve had a primary campaign that isn’t really an argument about issues. It’s a series of heresy trials in which each of the candidates accuse the others of tribal impurity. Two kinds of candidates emerge from this process: first, those who are forceful but outside the mainstream; second, those who started out mainstream but look weak and unprincipled because they have spent so much time genuflecting before those who despise them.

The “wingers” keep winning because Establishment opinion-leaders privately gnash their teeth but publicly do nothing, says Brooks:

But where have these party leaders been over the past five years, when all the forces that distort the G.O.P. were metastasizing? Where were they during the rise of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck? Where were they when Arizona passed its beyond-the-fringe immigration law? Where were they in the summer of 2011 when the House Republicans rejected even the possibility of budget compromise? They were lying low, hoping the unpleasantness would pass.

All very true. But what about David Brooks himself? Has he consistently been the brave truth-teller, advising Republican elites they were selling their birthright for a mess of pottage by serially cringing before and then trying to coopt the “wingers?” That’s not so clear.

In the fall of 2008, even as Brooks was privately calling Sarah Palin a “fatal cancer” within the GOP, he was penning this rosy assessment of her debate performance opposite Joe Biden:

[T]his debate was about Sarah Palin. She held up her end of an energetic debate that gave voters a direct look at two competing philosophies. She established debating parity with Joe Biden. And in a country that is furious with Washington, she presented herself as a radical alternative.

By the end of the debate, most Republicans were not crouching behind the couch, but standing on it. The race has not been transformed, but few could have expected as vibrant and tactically clever a performance as the one Sarah Palin turned in Thursday night.

How about the Tea Party Movement, the very beating heart of wingerism in the GOP? By many accounts, its apex was the September 2009 rally on the National Mall. Brooks happened, he said at the time, to go jogging on the Mall that day, and the theme of his column on the experience was that the Tea Folk were as conventionally American as apple pie, and did not deserve the criticism they were receiving as extremists:

Barack Obama leads a government of the highly educated. His movement includes urban politicians, academics, Hollywood donors and information-age professionals. In his first few months, he has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health care industries and the energy sector.

Given all of this, it was guaranteed that he would spark a populist backlash, regardless of his skin color. And it was guaranteed that this backlash would be ill mannered, conspiratorial and over the top — since these movements always are, whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else.

What we’re seeing is the latest iteration of that populist tendency and the militant progressive reaction to it. We now have a populist news media that exaggerates the importance of the Van Jones and Acorn stories to prove the elites are decadent and un-American, and we have a progressive news media that exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small-town folks are dumb wackos.

Note that Obama and his progressive supporters are ultimately to blame for any excesses committed by these all-American “populists.”

I don’t hold Brooks or anybody else strictly accountable for absolute consistency. But he’s long played a double game with “movement conservatism,” accepting tactical alliances with its zealots and only occasionally freaking out over their extremism. So if he’s going to excoriate those Establishment Republican “possums” for ceding control of their party to the “wingers,” perhaps he should begin with that possum he sees in the mirror.

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.