I was a liberal Democrat when I was young. I used to wear a green Army jacket with political buttons on it — for Hubert Humphrey, Birch Bayh, John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt. I even wore that jacket in my high school yearbook photo.
Have Douthat show you how to post a picture.
Look, somebody's missing the joke here, and god knows it could be me. But it's Brooks who keeps doing this, over and over, as though even if he doesn't imagine he's fooling anyone he thinks "I Was a Teenaged Liberal" is the fucking Comstock Lode of political insight, the Rosebud of the Op-Ed pages, the Friedman cabbie people believe in. So if taking this semi-seriously even for a moment misses the point, I apologize.
But by the time Main Line Davey turned 15 Jimmy Carter had secured the Democratic nomination and a huge lead over Gerald "Nixon Pardoner" Ford. Does Brooks ever claim to have been a Carter supporter? Admit a pubescent admiration for George McGovern? That button collection sounds more like something he'd swiped from his Yellow-Dog Democrat grampa's bureau drawer in the dark. Humphrey? Student Drivers for Hubert Fucking Humphrey? Just a big fan of Full Employment, or of his brave 11th-hour opposition to bombing Vietnam? Birch Bayh--something in his twenty-five minute campaign really spoke to your adolescent self? FDR? Where'd you even find an FDR button in 1976? By the mid-70s Roosevelt was a plaster saint, a face in the change drawer, an American icon, not a rallying-point for Budding Young Socialists.
Let's just say that were I sitting across the felt table from Bobo here I'd figure "Franklin Roosevelt button" was either a Tell of the first order or a shrewd little leg-pull, and I'd take my chances betting against shrewd. It's Brooks' post-Conversion Friedmaniac pals who think an FDR button would have been the height of teen rebellion during the Carter administration; for everyone else in those days the New Deal was sensible, fluoridation was reasonable, and Army BDU jackets were five years out of date, unless you were a Vietnam vet who lived in yours.
It’s a magic green jacket. I can put it on today and, suddenly, my mind shifts back to the left.
Hey, at one time I had an authentic Wehrmacht field cap, but I couldn't put it on and receive uncoded messages from Dick Cheney.
I start thinking like a Democrat, feeling a strange accompanying hunger for brown rice.
Oh, har har har! Sorry I ever doubted you, Dave; you can talk the talk.
When I put on that magic jacket today, I feel beleaguered but kind of satisfied. I feel beleaguered because the political winds are blowing so ferociously against “my” party. But I feel satisfied because the Democrats have overseen a bunch of programs that, while unappreciated now, are probably going to do a lot of good in the long run.
I'm guessin' the upcoming list isn't going to feature a lot that would have excited a fifteen-year-old Humphrey liberal at Radnor.
For example, everybody now hates the bank bailouts and the stress tests. But, the fact is, these are some of the most successful programs in recent memory. They stabilized the financial system without costing much money. The auto bailout was criticized at the time, but it’s looking pretty good now that General Motors is recovering.
There's that Good Ole FDR influence.
But the magic jacket-wearing me is nervous about the next few years. I’m afraid my party is going to get stuck in the same old debates that we always lose. First, we’re going to have the same old tax debate. We’re going to not extend the Bush tax cuts on the rich. The Republicans will blast us for killing growth and raising taxes as they did in 2000 and 2004.
Check the pockets. I think your jacket is tuned to the Democratic Leadership Council drive-time show.
Then we’ll get stuck in the same old spending debate. We’ll point to high unemployment and propose spending programs too small to make much difference. The Republicans will blast us for bankrupting the country with ineffective programs, and the voters are so distrustful of government these days that they’ll side with the Republicans on that one, too.
Okay, screw this. Look, the one proven way we can avoid getting "stuck in the same old spending debate" is to elect Republicans, who then bankrupt us without criticizing themselves for it. You, Mr. Brooks, backed blank-check military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this you were both dead wrong and remarkably unfettered by your own widely-trumpeted "principles", but these are beside the point. If you believe in busting the Treasury for your pet ideas, then you cannot scream bloody murder when a Democratic landslide does the same. As for the voters, well, let 'em vote. If eight years of unmitigated disaster weren't enough for us, then let's learn the lesson all over again.
So I sit there in my magic green jacket and I wonder: What can my party do to avoid the big government tag that always leads to catastrophe?
I dunno…fight you assholes? Just kiddin'.
Here's an idea: next Halloween, instead of wearing your hippie jacket try finding a pair of magic eyeglasses that see into the present. You wanna talk catastrophe? Try the long-term effects of Reaganomics, which you championed. Try the hysterical reaction to 9/11, which you championed. Try sixty-five years of incontinent military spending, which both sides facilitate but your side claims as a birthright. Try the trendy denigration of any and all spending for the general welfare--even that which rescues us from the brink of disasters caused by unregulated corporate rapine. Championed by whom, again?
It occurs to me that the Obama administration has done a number of (widely neglected) things that scramble the conventional categories and that are good policy besides. The administration has championed some potentially revolutionary education reforms. It has significantly increased investments in basic research. It has promoted energy innovation and helped entrepreneurs find new battery technologies. It has invested in infrastructure — not only roads and bridges, but also information-age infrastructure like the broadband spectrum.Golly, something that's just become apparent, huh? We haven't frittered away our wealth; we were forced to sell it at a loss to Wal*Mart and Halliburton and General Electric. It's the fact that "the business community" can operate its own culture war--while avoiding paying for the two real wars it is happy to profit from--which is the problem. It's the fact that "greasing the skids for private profit" is seen in some quarters and Op-Ed holes as the One Legitimate Function of Government which is the problem. It's the fact that someone can spend twenty-five years getting paid to urge the country to take its collective hands off the wheel and let Goldman Sachs drive, then blame the passengers for the unexpected crash and walk off like nothing happened which is the measure of our decline.
These accomplishments aren’t big government versus small government; they’re using government to help set a context for private sector risk-taking and community initiative. They cut through the culture war that is now brewing between the Obama administration and the business community. They also address the core anxiety now afflicting the public. It’s not only short-term unemployment that bothers people. What really scares people is the sense that we’re frittering away our wealth. Americans fear we’re a nation in decline.
We're in decline because we've been sold a bill of goods. We've been sold on the idea that we could only be safe if we outspent the combined nations on earth militarily; we could only be free if we if we deregulated business and hoped massive profits got us jobs somewhere; we could afford to run a civilized society in the 21st century only some people fell down the rathole and we ignored their cries for help. Who's been doing the selling? "The People" are angry about the decline of the US of A, but those same People supposedly cheered every goddam step that got us here. And this is the Democrats fault, not because they cowered from the mythic might of Reaganism rather than oppose it, not because they sold the birthright of Franklin Delano Roosevelt for multi-million dollar campaign war chests, but because they're the party of Big Government, according to the other party, the one that was doing all that shit.
Eventually, I see a party breaking out of old stereotypes, appealing to entrepreneurs and suburbanites again, and I start feeling good about the future. Then I take off the magic green jacket and return to my old center-right self. A chill sweeps over me: Gosh, what if the Democrats really did change in that way?
Worse, what if they behaved like Democrats for once? But, hell, you want a real chill, consider eight more years of your bozofest of a party back in control. There ain't enough olive drab in the country to keep us warm from that.