Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 18, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE DOG THAT DIDN'T BARK IN THE NIGHT....David Brooks writes today in "The Coming Activist Age" that we are entering an era of "epic legislation." He then ticks off five areas that he thinks will "compel the federal government to act in gigantic ways over the next few years": healthcare, energy, education, financial markets, and infrastructure.

Fine. But then he tries to make the point that this doesn't necessarily favor Democrats. Sure, he says, Dems are the natural party of federal vigor:

Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule....Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.

Those are odd choices, aren't they? A Victorian era prime minister and a guy who accidentally became president in 1901. Surely there must have been some prominent conservative reformers from within the past century that he could have named instead. Anyone? Bueller?

Kevin Drum 5:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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Surely there must have been some prominent conservative reformers from within the past century that he could have named instead. Anyone? Bueller?
—Kevin Drum

No.

And nothing Brooks writes is to be taken seriously in the least.

Posted by: Jeff II on July 18, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

George W. Bush, whom David Brooks still loves.

Posted by: riffle on July 18, 2008 at 6:08 PM | PERMALINK

Plus, TR really can't be called a "conservative." He was a Progressive northern Republican -- so someone that today we would call a "liberal Democrat."

Posted by: Joe on July 18, 2008 at 6:10 PM | PERMALINK

Um, maybe I'm missing something but when I think of "great governmental change" in a positive way, I think of another Roosevelt, the one that conservatives don't love.

Posted by: thersites on July 18, 2008 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

Theodore Roosevelt was not really a conservative, and the common ground he had with today's political right is a lot smaller than historical lore lets on. First, in the 19th century, the Democratic Party was MOSTLY the conservative party in the USA; there was a fairly significant split in all of the parties, but the Republicans as well as some state Democratic parties were wooing the prairie progressives.

All of the reformist measures taken by Pres. Roosevelt would be anathema to today's "conservatives," which is what really matters.

As for Disraeli, I'm guessing that Brooks has in mind his support for the 1867 Reform Bill, which greatly increased the franchise. In 1867, the Liberal Party was not (by modern US usage) "liberal" at all; it was demanding unrestricted laissez-faire capitalism. So once again, Brooks is disingenuous.

Posted by: James R MacLean on July 18, 2008 at 6:22 PM | PERMALINK

"healthcare, energy, education, financial markets, and infrastructure"

Is Brooks willing to put money on the fact that epic legislation will be passed in all five areas? I'll give him even odds and the stipulation that he wins if there is epic legislation in four out of five areas.

Can anybody name any epic legislation in these areas that has been proposed in Congress this session or by either candidate this election outside of single payer healthcare bills that have gotten nowhere near passing nor the support of Obama or McCain?

Posted by: reino on July 18, 2008 at 6:23 PM | PERMALINK

Dems are the natural party of federal vigor:

And I guess Republicans are the natural party of corporate control and their pretty damn vigorous themselves. I mean, I'm surprised Brooks didn't mention Bush as the greatest period of the great governmental change during ANY previous conservative rule?

I mean, Bush lie to start a war, wiretapped, tortured and his Republician cronies took over Wallstreet, the media as well as the press so isn't this change the Brooks has totally overlook?

Boy, these Repugs are really bothered by Obama's big $ 52 million bombshell aren't they? They are just utterly freaked and going nuts out there. Must be hell lossing all that methodical devised and pricey control.

Posted by: Me_again on July 18, 2008 at 6:27 PM | PERMALINK

no ben stein references, please. the man is repugnant

Posted by: no ben stein on July 18, 2008 at 6:34 PM | PERMALINK

Teddy Roosevelt was a conservative? That's a new one on me.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on July 18, 2008 at 6:45 PM | PERMALINK

For Mr. Brooks, any legislation that does not provide tax cuts to the wealthiest is beyond ordinary. However, if legislation is passed that provides universal health care, that could be considered heroic.

Posted by: Brojo on July 18, 2008 at 6:47 PM | PERMALINK

In many aspects, Nixon. And I met Nixon once. And Sen. McCain too. And IMO McCain is no Nixon. I say this disparagingly.

Posted by: wren on July 18, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

nixon. clean air and clean water, endangered species, etc... not sure he wanted to do all this, but for whatever reason it happened. One theory I've heard is that liberals push harder against the other guys and not hard enough when their own guys are at the helm. If there's any truth to Brooks' theory, maybe that's part of it.

Posted by: erik on July 18, 2008 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

nixon. clean air and clean water, endangered species, etc... not sure he wanted to do all this, but for whatever reason it happened. One theory I've heard is that liberals push harder against the other guys and not hard enough when their own guys are at the helm. If there's any truth to Brooks' theory, maybe that's part of it.

Posted by: erik on July 18, 2008 at 7:02 PM | PERMALINK

Oh Jeebus, that SOB Brooks: If McCain is going to win this election, it will because he can communicate an essential truth — that people in a great and successful nation do not want change for its own sake. But they do realize that it’s only through careful reform that they can preserve what they and their ancestors have so laboriously built.

In what conservative world would the Republican's haved voted en bloc to eviscerate the 4th Amendment if indeed they wanted to preserve what they and their ancestors have so laboriously built?

Former GOP congressman Bob Barr is only running as a Libertarian Party presidential candidate BECAUSE McSame McCain has the Republican candidate slot already filled. Bush and McSame are not really a conservatives. They are both merely the corporate face that would like Americans to surrender their freedom for corporate control, but corporations can't really get contol unless Americans give up their US Constitution.

Brooks should just go jump off the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and on his way down take a good look at the faces of the ancestors that so laboriously built the very country that Brooks and Bush tried so desperately to destroy.

Posted by: Me_again on July 18, 2008 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks is probably just trying to get people scared that if it's the Democrats who are responsible for all this broad legislation, they are going to end up implementing some kind of ridiculous, socialist authoritarian command-economy bullshit.

People don't need to worry- that's not how policy is made in America at the federal level nowadays (at least, it's not how Democrats make honest efforts to solve real problems). Instead, federal law-makers can get help from all kinds of think tanks, experts, and academics who can make specific policy suggestions or who can even be retained in teams to study a problem for months and years and come up with the whole diagnosis of a problem and comprehensive suggestions for legislation themselves. It isn't like a bunch of idiots fiddling around with trying to control everything about the country.

If conservatives and underinformed types want to vex about what wen wrong in the Soviet Union, they shold consider that the Soviet Union's leaders were a bunch of idiots, bullies, and bumpkins, a lot more like putting Bush, Rove, and the like in charge of a command economy than like putting modern democrats and the academics they form policy with in absolute control of a nation. In countries like the USSR, it was the scum and the bullies who rose to the top in everything, not the smart people- the only difference between the USSR then and the USA today being, now it's the scum and the bullies who are rising to the top of a capitalist, not a command, system.

A better analog to look to to see who is more like the communist leaders, Republicans or Democrats, is Iraq. Iraq is a place where the Republicans have had a chance to rebuild a country almost from the ground-up. Even not counting the problems related to violence there, the Republicans have failed miserably (and done a USSR-worthy job). Same with the Katrina rebuilding.

Posted by: Swan on July 18, 2008 at 7:20 PM | PERMALINK

The USSR was a bunch of hostile, amateurish people trying to make decisions they weren't qualified to make, but got to make because they were politicall loyal. That's 8- or 9/10 of why their country failed so badly, not their communal ideology.

The Republicans are trying to do the same thing- award decision-making authority based on political loyalty, not professional qualification.

Posted by: Swan on July 18, 2008 at 7:23 PM | PERMALINK

now it's the scum and the bullies who are rising to the top of a capitalist, not a command, system.

And in many ways, they're making it more and more like a command system all the time, which (at least with this kind of leaders) will produce results more and more like the USSR did over time.

Posted by: Swan on July 18, 2008 at 7:25 PM | PERMALINK

See, Kevin, you quoted Brooks and he made some typos. Let me fix that. (You don't have strike! Naughty!)

Bad:

Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule....Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus cautious, patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation.

Better!:

Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of rule by neo-con idols....Two of the most prominent neo-con idols were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt. Both reframed the political debate so that it was not change versus the status quo, it was unfamiliar change versus imperialism (aka guns and butter) and killing foreigners.

One notes he did not mention Eisenhower and the national highway system or Nixon and the various D-sponsored laws he signed, since neither Nixon or Ike are neo-conservative idols (because they were never enthusiastic enough about killing foreigners via such methods as 'rollback').

Translation: 'Vote McCain: he'll kill people, cut taxes and hand out free money!'

max
['Gotta keep your priorities in order.']

Posted by: on July 18, 2008 at 7:30 PM | PERMALINK

If McCain is going to win this election, it will because he can communicate an essential truth — that people in a great and successful nation do not want change for its own sake.

Change for its own sake?!?

Sweet screaming monkeys, that's stupid. As if nothing bad has happened these last eight years and we're just sort of, you know, bored with all the peace and prosperity?

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on July 18, 2008 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK
Yet, historically, periods of great governmental change have often been periods of conservative rule....Two of the most prominent conservative reformers were Benjamin Disraeli and Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was a Progressive, and advocate of progressive taxes on wealth (not just income), a trust-buster, an advocate of regulation of railroads, food and drugs, and of universal health care and national health insurance, someone who argued that the courts were unfairly biased against labor unions, etc., etc., etc.

The Republican party largely became "conservative", by comparison with the Democratic Party, because Roosevelt left and broke the attachment of the progressive wing of the Republican Party from that Party.

Calling Roosevelt a conservative reformer goes beyond mere inaccuracy in the same way that calling Benedict XVI a leading advocate of secular humanism would.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 18, 2008 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

There's no point in asking such questions. Brooks is a rightard-enabling asshole who will do whatever it takes to avoid giving credit to Democrats.

Posted by: ♪ on July 18, 2008 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

The answer for Brooks should have been "Eisenhower." Certainly more conservative, in a Main Street way, than reformer, nonetheless, his "me-too-ism" Republicanism on a fair number of domestic issues cold be spun as reformism. How Brooks missed that, I don't know.

But, don't buy the myth of progressive TR vs. conservative Taft totally. TR had far better post-1912 PR machinery than did Taft. Beyond that, Taft actually launched (and not just oversaw ones started by TR), more antitrust investigations than the Bull Mooser did.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 18, 2008 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

Teddy invented the modern AZmerican police force as police commissioner in NYC.

Posted by: MattY on July 18, 2008 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

Ike: He built the interstate highways. Big change there, in a lot of ways. Like a Republican, it was done half assed and on the cheap and made a mess of our urban landscape.

Posted by: Bub on July 18, 2008 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

Swan spelled almost every word correctly.

But mostly I just wanted to say that, as a character in the Iliad I approve heartily of "epic legislation."

And Quaker, I sure wish I'd come up with the phrase "sweet screaming monkeys."

Posted by: thersites on July 18, 2008 at 9:58 PM | PERMALINK

I'd say the Lincoln Administration and its immediate heirs were the greatest conservative reformers of the 19th century. Three of their major accomplishments, the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, and the transcontinental railway, can be considered "conservative reforms" since they were basically in line with a long tradition going back to the early Republic. That would probably also go for their greatest achievement, preserving the Union, which basically settled the argument between the Federalists and Anti-Federalists that the United States was an "is" not an "are." Their one partial failure, Emancipation and Reconstruction, was due because racial equality really went to much against the social and cultural grain of the time. Compared wit this record,though, TR was pretty much a piker. Can anyone remember, let alone explain, the Hepburn Ac? TR is even less impressive when measured against the great reforming regimes of the twentieth century, both of the left (Britain's pre-World War I Liberal Government and post-World War II Labor Government, the Roosevelt-Truman Administrations and the Kennedy-Johnson era) and the right (De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher). I don't think any of these were particularly cautious.

Posted by: reference librarian on July 18, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

And, of course, TR was the original progressive.

He negotiated an end to the UMW's anthracite coal strike in 1902. Negotiating with a union is conservative?

He filed 44 lawsuits against corporate monopolies.

His biggest legislative success was the Hepburn act, which imposed maximum rates on interstate transport, outlawed rebates and free passes, prescribed a uniform system of accounting and gave the ICC the power to inspect railroad accounts.

He pushed the Pure Food and Drug act and the Meat Inspection Act, providing for labeling of foods and drugs, inspection of livestock and of sanitary conditions at meatpacking plants.

He set aside more land for parks than all of his predecessors combined, and created the Forest Service.

He used the Army medical service to eradicate yellow fever in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Canal Zone.

In 1912, he headed the Progressive ticket.

Oh, and he put Lincoln on the penny. In the midst of Jim Crow.

This is a conservative???

Posted by: pjcamp on July 19, 2008 at 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

Re: Ike building the interstate system. Yah, I thought of this one too. I would argue the Ike was not a typical Republican. He was nonpartisan before he ran for President, and both the D’s & the R’s lobbied him to run on their behalf. He showed definite Republican tendencies when he stood by and allowed Joe McCarthy (and Joe’s #1 staffer Bobby Kennedy) to slime his mentor, George Marshall. Still, he finished his two terms by warning America of the danger of the military industrial complex. Reagan, the patron saint of all things R, dissed Ike totally (if totally unknowingly) when he asserted that the term Ike invented, “military industrial complex”, was just another liberal slam on the “arsenal of democracy”.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 19, 2008 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

Of course, in the 20th century, the biggest changes came with FDR in the 30s-40s, and JFK/Johnson in the 60s. These periods totally changed the course of the US within the lifetime of those still with us, very much against the reflexes of the right then and now.

There's no way the Republicans have any claim on civilized economy or effective control of same.

Posted by: notthere on July 19, 2008 at 2:29 AM | PERMALINK

Swan spelled almost every word correctly.

And the substance of my opinions was good and honest, which is infinitely more important-- of course, you forgot to mention that.

Posted by: Swan on July 19, 2008 at 3:31 AM | PERMALINK

TR of course was a fantastic person who laid much of the intellectual and political foundations of progressive American politics. Hell, today he'd be well to the left of most Democrats. Still, the relevance of the Hepburn Act to modern American life can best be measured by considering that the ICC closed up shop decades ago. Compare this with the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act, all passed by the next great progressive president, someone we all seem to have forgotten, Woodrow Wilson.

Posted by: reference librarian on July 19, 2008 at 7:27 AM | PERMALINK

patriotic change designed to preserve the traditional virtues of the nation

Like wife beating and lynching.
.

Posted by: Grand Moff Texan on July 19, 2008 at 10:42 AM | PERMALINK

"the next great progressive president, someone we all seem to have forgotten, Woodrow Wilson."

Are you on crack? Thomas Woodrow Wilson was a world class jackass, horrible racist and a goddamned fool who let his mother's fellow Britons talk him into joining World War I so it wouldn't have to negotiate away its empire.

It'd have been better if TR had beat him in 1912, It'd have been the best if he had been on the Titanic and drowned.

Posted by: beowulf on July 19, 2008 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

For anyone interested in Wilson more... W.-ish traits, Thomas Fleming's The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I is outstanding.

. On the way back to his office, someone handed La Follette a rope, suggesting he should -- or might -- meet a traitor's death. The next day, around 4 p.m. Senator La Follette rose to explain why he opposed war with Germany. He opened with a brief, almost curt attack on the idea that every senator should "stand behind the president." What kind of doctrine was that, he asked? What if the president was wrong?
http://hnn.us/articles/1556.html

Posted by: on July 19, 2008 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

Teddy Roosevelt was an outspoken imperialist in foreign policy and a progressive in domestic policy. So, no, he wasn't a conservative.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on July 19, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Of course TR wasn't a conservative, but this is a column by David Brooks, for Pete's sake. Brooksie wouldn't know a conservative from a communist or a liberal from a lunatic, even if he had a dozen historians and political scientists trying to explain the differences to him.

Disraeli, also, was hardly an example of the counter-reformer that Brooksie implies, but, though hardly the progressive that TR was, a man willing to support serious change in the way the UK was governed. I'm sure that every conservative in the US would laud Disraeli's recommendation that the income tax be progressive.

Posted by: freelunch on July 19, 2008 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

A little outside your timeframe, but the prototypical conservative activist is Bismarck, who flummoxed liberals for 60 years, created the first social security system and divorced nationalism from progressive politics.

Posted by: loki on July 19, 2008 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

My letter to the editor of the NY Times:

"David Brooks outperforms even himself in his latest sleight-of-hand column, “The Coming Activist Age,” (Op-Ed, July18.) First, he lists all of America’s ills that have festered or exploded while Republicans held the reigns of power, then proceeds to argue that only the right is capable of effecting needed change.

Along the way, he reaches back more than 100 years to Disraeli rule in Great Britain and Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency for support, omitting the inconvenient truth that neither period has much in common with America today or the Republican party of George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and yes, John McCain.

Nor does he acknowledge any of the socio-economic advances that took place under Democratic administrations and which now form the bedrock foundation of American society (e.g., women’s suffrage, the New Deal, Medicare and civil rights).

Typical of the Republican echo chamber, why let facts get in the way."

Posted by: InSanity on July 20, 2008 at 12:31 AM | PERMALINK

Congress doing something "epic"? Congress is the problem. Nothing can be solved by legislation. Democracy is only possible in a bourgeois country with well educated citizens committed to participating, with a legislature that fears not being reelected. America has become something different. Democracy is already dead and we need to stop pretending we believe in the legislative process. The citizenry is much too stupid and their vote makes no difference in a regime of guaranteed incumbency. The choices are soft fascism or a dictatorship of the proletariat. But certainly we need a strongman to put Congress in the corner where it belongs, since Congress is structurally prevented from doing anything for the public good and structurally committed to giving away everything it can borrow to its cronies. Party is irrelevant. I wish America was still bourgeois enough to support the sort of limited, tiny democracy its citizens used to be allowed. But that's no longer possible. It's time for a robust dictatorship. Too bad we'll have to suffer through the executions, torture, corruption, and theft of the inevitable Allende before we arrive at the torture, corruption, and theft of the inevitable Chavez. Either one will be better than the torture, corruption, and theft of government under the outmoded constitution of 1789. Get ready for 21st century autocracy. You won't have any political choices anymore, but at least somebody will have authority, which is more than we can say for the utter failure we currently pretend is legislative government in the U.S.

http://www.corneroak.com/leaves/le071908.html

LDE

Posted by: Lindsey Eck on July 20, 2008 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks is completely and irretrievably high. This statement is exactly why this idiot cannot be taken seriously, even though he sometimes barks up the right tree. All major federal changes for the greater good have been done by Democrats. The only things conservatives are good for is corruption and gay sex in public bathrooms.

Posted by: BombIranForChrist on July 20, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK
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