Political Animal


May 15, 2012 2:52 PM ESPN Straw Man

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Darsan54 on May 15, 2012 3:07 PM:

    If David Brooks has authored it, you can pretty much count on it being wrong on multiple levels. The man is somewhat soft-spoken, well-mannered and intellectually eloquent. But his reasoning and research are shoddy, below par and just lazy.

  • Gummo on May 15, 2012 3:11 PM:

    The obsession of our spoiled, cossetted, isolated and insulated pundits with proving that they're real men and real Americans and understand what real men and real Americans think and want and feel, while at the same time pushing an agenda that would destroy the real Americans they claim to worship and emulate --

    it would be worthy of a study in a psychiatric journal if it wasn't so easily explained by greed, insecurity and social climbing.

  • stormskies on May 15, 2012 3:15 PM:

    The fundamentals are these: Obama is ahead with the women by 20% or so, is ahead with the Hispanics by about 80%, is ahead with the African-Americans by about 95%, and is roughly tied or slightly behind with white male voters: all combined. Add up the 'fundamental' numbers yourselves. And, yet, all the corporate created polls, like today's lunacy from CBS, create propaganda that pretends that either buffoon Romney is slightly ahead, or slightly behind.

    The fundamental numbers speaks for themselves, and should create the necessary factual perspective to understand just how corrupt all the corporate/ Repiglican polls actually are.

  • Gummo on May 15, 2012 3:25 PM:

    Also, stormskies, if the Rethugs are going to make a credible effort at stealing an election again, they need the "it's very close!" story out there.

  • stormskies on May 15, 2012 3:31 PM:

    Gummo: you are so right. Even buffoon Romney has admitted, honestly for a change, that he can not win the election unless he get's around 40% or so of the Hispanic vote, and can bring the natural women's vote that always goes Democratic down to about 5 or 6 percent in favor of the Democrats. Neither of these scenarios will happen of course.

    Yet, despite this 'fundamental' reality, the corporate pimps called 'pundits' and 'journalists' splutter the corporate/Repiglican propaganda anyway with few exceptions.

  • DJ on May 15, 2012 3:47 PM:

    Deadspin's take was just as good.

    Brooks is utterly clueless as to contemporary culture. His use of it is analogous to allowing a toddler to play with scissors.

  • T2 on May 15, 2012 3:52 PM:

    "the president should not be getting crushed" correct. and he is not. The surprise here, that Brooks won't dare say, is that Obama isn't running way ahead. But it's guys like Brooks, who make a living writing political drivel, that consistently and purposefully overlooked the disaster the Republicans have handed this nation over the Bush years. If not for that, and his color, Barack Obama would be coasting on his merits. Which are quite substantial if put in a list, and notwithstanding the unified opposition by the other party.

  • jjm on May 15, 2012 3:57 PM:

    David Brooks: another example of the banality of evil.

  • Ron Byers on May 15, 2012 4:03 PM:

    stormskies, I have looked at the polls and have the same problem you do. Unless Obama is loosing by high double digits among white men, the polls should show that he is crushing Romney. That some polls say he isn't tells us more about corporate polling and the need for a horserace than anything else, except maybe the pollsters are factoring in the effect of the Republican voter suppression efforts into the mix. Those efforts are the only reason Romney has any chance at all.

  • FlipYrWhig on May 15, 2012 5:15 PM:

    I think David Brooks does all his ESPN watching at the Applebee's salad bar.

  • biggerbox on May 15, 2012 10:10 PM:

    The essence of every David Brooks column is his projection of his own personal biases onto the world at large. Thus, in Brooks-speak, "fundamentals" actually refers to "the way I think the world should be working", not any actual objective evidence, whether or not he deigns to point to any in the pretense of making an actual case.

    This column is essentially asking, "Why doesn't everybody agree with me?", and, since Brooks is "structurally" incapable of understanding how anyone else thinks, flailing around to invent a reason. Of course it's stupid.

    The actual reason why Brooks' "fundamentals" don't hold true is that, thank goodness, we are not all a bunch of over-privileged twits with cushy jobs pulling ideas out of our...oh never mind.