On Wednesday Charley Rose featured David Brooks and Chris Matthews in a post-mortum discussion of the election results. Link here.
Even though he is now mostly known for the tingle that once ran up his leg, Chris Matthews came up through the Democratic party ranks. David Brooks is a sometime, some would say, putative Republican, who supported Barack Obama for president.
While Matthews is a stalwart liberal, many would argue that Brooks is a stalwart conservative, or even a Republican.
In the segment these two sensible and intelligent analysts opined on what happened, why it happened, and what everyone should do now.
The discussion was moderated by Charley Rose, a man who is generally considered a moderate. By definition, you can’t be an effective moderator if you aren’t perceived to be moderate.
As one would expect, most of the discussion was cogent and astute. It was wrapped in a spirit of cooperation and comity.
It’s as though the guests were saying: if we can get along, why can’t Republicans and Democrats get along?
Near the end Chris Matthews remarked that after the 1982 election Ronald Reagan and then House speaker Tip O’Neill went for a walk on the White House grounds and cobbled together a budget deal.
The image of Reagan and O‘Neill walking and working together gives you that warm fuzzy feeling; it offers a visual image and provides narrative sustenance.
After all, educated opinion, embodied by Matthews and Brooks, imagines that Obama just needs to find a better narrative. As though the president were somehow a glorified storyteller. And that a president forges emotional connections by telling stories.
The truth is that people who tell stories do not connect; they entertain. Storytelling tries to create the pretense of a connection where there is none..
Be that as it may, after Matthews told his story, Charley Rose chimed in, impishly, to remind us all that we were not dealing with Reagan and O’Neill, but with Obama and Boehner.
It was not the only moment where Charley Rose dropped an impish remark that effectively cut through the airy gauze of fictional comity and reintroduced the hard truths of the real world.
While we do not know how John Boehner will function as Speaker of the House, we know, or at least we should know, that Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan.
This morning Peggy Noonan wrote a great column explaining why and how Obama is not Reagan. For those who are interested, she also remarked pointedly that Sarah Palin is no Reagan either. Link here.
It was not the only moment where Charley Rose interrupted the Matthews/Brooks lovefest with a remark that served as an effective reality check.
Matthews and Brooks were doing a wonderful job of presenting the conventional wisdom among the educated elites. They agreed that the country needed to invest more in infrastructure. They disagreed on which infrastructure projects would be politically acceptable and culturally significant.
Matthews offered the intriguing idea that the nation should build a rapid rail system throughout the industrial Mid-West. It would reunite the American heartland while restoring American manufacturing and putting the unemployed workers who just voted Republican back to work.
As syntheses go, this was surely a good one. It’s a great idea, as ideas go, but it will not be realized any time in the near future. And not just because, as Brooks replied, America is much larger than the countries that have financed these projects, and is not really a train culture.
Brooks preferred investing in basic research, a different kind of infrastructure, and education. He had no hope for the return to manufacturing-- which had become far less labor intensive anyway-- and wanted the government to support and encourage more cutting- edge industries.
Neither he nor Matthews asked whether the return on our current investments in education had been commensurate with the sums spent. Truth be told, the more we spend on education, the less children learn.
Both Matthews and Brooks felt that the Republicans and Democrats could find common ground on infrastructure investments and therefore could get something done.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you but “infrastructure investment” is merely a liberal euphemism for what used to be called wasteful government spending.
In any event, it was a nice thought. Yet, Matthews and Brooks could only find common ground by taking leave of reality and entering a fictional world.
Charley Rose drove the point home when he asked, with the attitude of innocence that deserves to be called impish: What about the debt and the deficit?
As the old saying goes, at some point it becomes real money.
Rose was not just asking where the money was going to come from-- given that the nation is pretty much bankrupt-- but he was also referring to the fact that the American people, if they voted for anything on Tuesday, voted for fiscal austerity.
I believe it was Rose who also added, importantly, that the world’s great economic powers have recently taken a turn toward fiscal austerity, and were becoming increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration's failure to do the same.
Brooks responded that we could cut the budget in one place and increase it in another. Again, it’s a nice thought. But when you have no money, the electorate is probably not going to let itself be fooled by a budgetary sleight of hand.
Of course, Japan has been trying for decades to spend its way out of its own financial oblivion, with infrastructure projects and public investment. As everyone knows, the experiment has largely failed.
But Charley Rose also raised the more salient, and more current example. Recently, New Jersey governor Chris Christie killed the massive infrastructure project that would have built a new tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan.
Why did he do it? Because these projects, like the Big Dig in Boston, tend to produce massive cost overruns, and end up putting taxpayers on the hook. The Boston tunnel project, originally estimated to cost $2.8 billion is going to cost something like $22 billion.
Referring to Gov. Christie's decision brought the conversation back onto terra firma. Both Matthews and Brooks agreed that New Jersey and other states have no money for infrastructure spending because their budgets have been crippled by obligations they incurred through their contracts with the public employee unions.
No one offered a solution to that problem.
Thus, they achieved a slightly different kind of comity, the kind that washes its hands of prospective solutions once it discovers that they are not going to happen.
Yet, both Matthews and Brooks agreed that the president should dedicate himself to reviving that old American optimism, our can-do spirit, a feeling that our best days are ahead of us.
Again, that's also a good idea. It’s the right way to go. Unfortunately, thanks in part to thinkers like Matthews and Brooks, we have a president who is an imperfect embodiment of that spirit.
Read Peggy Noonan’s impressions of Obama’s post-election news conference, and you will find the optimistic aura vanishing before your eyes.
In Noonan’s words: “On Wednesday President Obama gave a news conference to share his thoughts. Viewers would have found it disappointing if there had been any viewers. The president is speaking, in effect, to an empty room. From my notes five minutes in: ‘This wet blanket, this occupier of the least interesting corner of the faculty lounge, this joy-free zone, this inert gas.’ By the end I was certain he will never produce a successful stimulus because he is a human depression.”
If that is not damning enough, Noonan continues: “His detachment is so great, it is even from himself. As he spoke, he seemed to be narrating from a remove. It was like hearing the audiobook of Volume I of his presidential memoirs.”
Brooks might have responded by echoing a remark that Obama made at his post-election press conference, and that Brooks assured us that he knew was absolutely true, namely that “circumstances” had made it impossible for Obama to be the kind of president that he would have wanted to be.
I don’t want to sound any more churlish than I usually do, but if you are going to portray yourself as a victim of circumstances, then you cannot at the same time take responsibility for your failings.
The test of any administration lies in how it responds to adversity, how it deals with events that no one predicted, and how it shapes history.
Adults should never complain about how reality did not let them live their dreams. It makes them sound like whiners. And it is beneath their age and their pay grades.