David Brooks totally bummed that centrism is in disfavor

It seems that something very polarizing indeed happened circa January 2009. And luckily for us, he’s identified the culprit. No, not Barack Obama.

“History,” my friends. History.

The country had just elected a man who vowed to move past the old polarities, who valued discussion and who clearly had some sympathy with both the Burkean and Hamiltonian impulses. He staffed his administration with brilliant pragmatists whose views overlapped with mine, who differed only in that they have more faith in technocratic planning.

Yet things have not worked out for those of us in the broad middle. Politics is more polarized than ever. The two parties have drifted further to the extremes. The center is drained and depressed.

What happened?

History happened. The administration came into power at a time of economic crisis. This led it, in the first bloom of self-confidence, to attempt many big projects all at once. Each of these projects may have been defensible in isolation, but in combination they created the impression of a federal onslaught.

Jennifer Rubin and DrewM are tearing him to shreds for using weasel words here instead of manning up and flatly admitting that he was wrong about The One — wrong about him being a “pragmatist” who’d address the country’s most pressing problems first, wrong about him being “moderate” who’d rein in spending while pushing for more effective, not necessarily bigger, government. The thing is, I thought Brooks already had admitted that. Remember? March 2, 2009, mere weeks after the inauguration:

Those of us who consider ourselves moderates — moderate-conservative, in my case — are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was. His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice. As Clive Crook, an Obama admirer, wrote in The Financial Times, the Obama budget “contains no trace of compromise. It makes no gesture, however small, however costless to its larger agenda, of a bipartisan approach to the great questions it addresses. It is a liberal’s dream of a new New Deal.”

Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, “a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal.” On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it.

Those of us in the moderate tradition — the Hamiltonian tradition that believes in limited but energetic government — thus find ourselves facing a void. We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We’re going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force.

He knows who Obama is — or at least, he does now — and he explicitly says in today’s piece that “the Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, decided to put the big government-versus-small government debate at the center of American life.” He’s not looking to absolve them of responsibility for horrifying half the country with their agenda; his point about “history” is simply that they’ve done this before under other presidents and that, alas, Captain Pantscrease’s tenure has turned out to be no different. If you want to knock him for something, knock him for recycling his tedious scylla-and-charybdis passion play in which the Voices of Reason are forever beset by wingnut zombies of all stripes. That’s one of the most irritating things about him, Frum, Kathleen Parker, Christopher Buckley and the rest of the center-right punditocracy. Nothing wrong with not being an ideologue — no self-respecting Chamberlain-esque RINO candy ass would say otherwise — but the endless, and endlessly smug, sighing self-pity over having to put up with partisans is alienating. Most people who feel strongly enough about politics to get involved with it are ideologues. Make peace with it.

In a way, I think Brooks is more bummed about Obama than the righty base is. As Krauthammer said elsewhere today, “Where there are no expectations, there is no disappointment,” and there were noooooo expectations for The One among grassroots conservatives. He is who we thought he was. For Brooks, though, who gazed into his eyes and thought he was staring into an ideological mirror, imagine the heart-ache. This was the guy who was going to prove that governance by elite intellectual pragmatists, unburdened by the ideological baggage to which the hoi polloi clings, was not only possible but superior. In Brooksy’s own memorable words, “So, that’s why it’s important he doesn’t f*** this up.” And now he’s gone and f***ed it up royally. Double heart-ache.

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