David Brooks, Bitter Clinger?

A bit more than five weeks ago, I posed a question: “What would it take to get David Brooks to admit that Barack Obama took him to the cleaners? What would it take to get him to acknowledge that he has been had? What would it take to cause him to turn on The One?” And, citing a column entitled Obama against Obamaism, in which Brooks called himself “a sap, a specific kind of sap. . . . an Obama Sap” and listed a number of occasions in which he had believed the nonsense the President was peddling, I suggested that President Obama’s campaign against “millionaires and billionaires” had with Brooks done the trick.

Yesterday, however, I received an e-mail from a friend, citing a column by Brooks, which appeared in Monday’s New York Times and asking whether that newspaper’s self-styled moderate was not, in fact, what Obama himself called “a bitter clinger.” Instead of clinging to guns and religion, however, my friend intimated that Brooks was clinging to Obama. Here is the passage that caught my friend’s eye:

Obama, who sounded so fresh in 2008, now sometimes sounds a bit like Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi. Obama, who inspired the country, now threatens to run a campaign that is viciously negative. Obama, who is still widely admired because he is reasonable and calm, is in danger of squandering his best asset by pretending to be someone he is not. Obama, a natural unifier and conciliator, seems on the verge of running as a divisive populist while accusing Mitt Romney, his possible opponent, of being inauthentic.

Don’t get me wrong. There is much in Brooks’ column that is perceptive. He notes that “the government activism of” the President’s “first two years” drove the country to the right “on issue after issue,” and he cites the pertinent polling data.

According to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans who were asked said they primarily blamed government for the economic slowdown, whereas only 30 percent said they blamed the financial institutions. According to a Congressional Connections poll, 55 percent of adults said they believed government regulation has been a “major factor” in the current economic slowdown.

The Occupy Wall Street placards advocate income redistribution, but data from the General Social Survey shows that support for redistribution has plummeted during the recession, with the sharpest declines coming among people earning between $7 and $9 an hour.

And he once again takes Obama to task for shifting decisively to the left, arguing that his electoral strategy is suicidal:

If Obama were a Republican, he could win with this sort of strategy: Repeat your party’s most orthodox positions and then rip your opponent to shreds. Republicans can win a contest between an orthodox Republican and an orthodox Democrat because they have the trust in government issue on their side.

Democrats do not have that luxury. The party of government cannot win an orthodox vs. orthodox campaign when 15 percent of Americans trust government. It certainly can’t do it presiding over 9 percent unemployment. It’s suicide.

Yet this is the course the Obama campaign has chosen. He’s campaigning these days as the populist fighter, the scourge of the privileged class. . . .

It’s misguided. It raises the ideological temperature and arouses the Big Government/Small Government debate. It repels independents, who don’t like the finance majors who went to Wall Street but trust the history majors who went to Washington even less.

The electoral strategy that Brooks recommends is just the opposite. It is, in fact, positively Clintonesque.

Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.

Don’t just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.

I do not know whether I would call Brooks a bitter clinger. But he certainly remains an Obama Sap. He still mistakes the pose of 2008 for reality. He is still persuaded that the real Obama is “reasonable and calm.” Back in September, I observed:

It has taken Brooks a very long time to recognize what was evident to nearly every member of Ricochet from the start — to wit, that the moderate demeanor of Barack Obama was a mask, and that behind it was a man intent on overthrowing the old America and replacing it with what he tellingly called The New Foundation.

The real question now is whether this recognition will have consequences for Brooks. He has a bully pulpit, and a decision on his part to systematically dispel the illusion of Barack Obama’s moderation could have a real impact on American life.

I can easily imagine Brooks following through on the logic of his discovery and figuring out that there never was a moment in the entire disgraceful and demeaning process in which he was not being used. I can imagine him, then, reassessing the longing for what he calls “moderation” that made him so easy a mark.

I also posed a question: “Once a sap, always a sap? Or is redemption a possibility?” I guess that I know the answer now. Brooks may not be bitter, but he certainly clings.