David Brooks

New at the Times, Part 2

VTR Date: October 1, 2003

Guest: Brooks, David


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: David Brooks
Title: “New at the Times”, Part II
VTR: 10/01/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with David Brooks, the newest guy on the block over at the OpEd page of The New York Times. And David, last program … our other program, you talked at the beginning about your own shift in …shall I call it ideology?

BROOKS: I guess so.

HEFFNER: Belief. Whatever … from Liberal to Conservative.

BROOKS: Philosophy.

HEFFNER: Well, philosophy. How do you account for that shift?

BROOKS: Yeah, I grew up in Stuyvesent Town, when to Grace Church School, so as … my father was teaching at NYU back then, it was not a hotbed of Conservatism. Went out to the suburbs of Philadelphia when my parents moved … in high school … and by then I was … I called myself a Democratic Socialist. Went to college at the University of Chicago, was reasonably apolitical … Chicago politics have more to do with third century Athens, than 20th century America.

And a couple things happened. The first was …and it was just a crack … was, I was asked to debate Milton Friedman on TV …


BROOKS: …he did a discussion show with college kids and I was one of his opponents. And so I studied Lester Thurow and people like that and he just destroyed me, of course. So TV show was me with my mouth hanging open trying to think of what to say. Because Friedman is the best arguer I’ve ever come across. And that … that did not change my mind overnight. I did lose to anybody at that state. But it did introduce me to a different way of thinking which I never had any contact with.

Then I was living in Chicago, and I consider myself, you know, someone who cares most about cities and how … what life is like in the cities and this was the seventies and eighties. And what happened in cities in the seventies and eighties, to put it, as bluntly and as simplistically as possible, is that crime went up; drug addiction went up; illegitimacy went up; divorce went up. All sort of bad things happened in the seventies and it seems to me that was the result of a lot of bad social programs.

And then in the eighties and nineties we had a reversal of social programs … Giuliani came in, here in New York … welfare reform was passed by Bill Clinton and a lot of things stated getting better. So, to put it as simplistically as possible, I thought that the Liberal social program were bad for cities, bad for people who were … didn’t have all the benefits of, of middle class life and I, I changed my mind because I just thought it was failing. And then the other thing was that I thought that Scoop Jackson’s policies toward the Soviet Union were more virtuous and better and more effective than the policies one was getting from George McGovern.

HEFFNER: Scoop Jackson never left the Democratic Party.

BROOKS: No. That’s true. But … though if you look at the people who worked on his staff …


BROOKS: A lot of them now work for George W. Bush. To me it was … Scoop Jackson … you know, he was, what I think some … there is an opening for still, which is a hawkish Liberal. He was truly a representative of union people, of working people and believed in almost New Deal style domestic programs along with a very aggressive policy against the Soviet Union.

HEFFNER: If we made Dick Gephardt into a “hawk”, do you think the combination …

BROOKS: If you could transplant that brain … Gephardt and Lieberman together … you would get something close to Scoop Jackson and even Dick Gephardt was a very early and aggressive supporter of the President when the Iraq War resolution came up, so there’s some element of that there perhaps. But I also thought that the domestic policies needed changing. And my argument was not with the old Left, not with FDR and the New Deal; I have no problem with that. In some ways the joke is you can define a Conservative by what year you want to go back to.

And some Conservatives want to go back to the free market nirvana of whenever …the early 19th century. I’m very happy to go back, at least on the social front to some of the pre-Great Society … Social Security, I’m fine with the New Deal; fine with a lot of the regulations; I’m fine with … it was when you began to see welfare policies beginning to destroy families that I … that’s when I get off the train.

HEFFNER: Well … if you then turn to Clinton’s approach to welfare and what he did, doesn’t it seem as though the train has slowed down and maybe you will find yourself climbing back on?

BROOKS: It’s possible. If the Democratic Party were trending that way. If you took the Clinton domestic policies, which were Bob Rubin’s fiscal policy, which was fine, very responsible. If you took the Clinton welfare reform, which I consider one of the most successful pieces of legislation in the last twenty years, if you look at child poverty rates … you know, they’ve gone up during the recession as they always do during recessions, but they’ve come down dramatically.

Now the welfare reform has done very well at getting people off welfare and into jobs. So far it has not done well at getting people to the point where they can sustain themselves on jobs. So a lot of people, who have jobs and are working and have dignity of work, still need help. And so the next challenge is to see what new programs can be created to get those people so they’re fully independent, fully leading the sort of lives they want to lead. But that, that welfare reform was to me tremendously successful as Rudy Giuliani’s crackdown on crime, restoring civility to New York was tremendously successful.

So to me if you’re growing up, as I grew up in the seventies and eighties, saw the city slide in the seventies, come back in the nineties, slide in a Liberal era, come back in a more Conservative era …you know, why isn’t everybody Conservative, I don’t know.

HEFFNER: Well, you know in a funny way, after you described yourself this way, your beliefs … I’ll ask how come you’re not a Liberal?

BROOKS: Because I’m a … I’m basically a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I …

HEFFNER: Where are the others?

BROOKS: Oh, there are four of us; we meet in a closet in John McCain’s office. [Laughter] And in Rudy Giuliani’s office. But I believe in competition. I believe in government policies that will stir up people to exert themselves and to bring out their fullest capacities. And some of those things mean stirring up things in ways the Democratic Party will never like. I’m much more open to school vouchers and school of choice than the Democratic Party will ever be. I’m much more open to allowing people who want to, to have privacy Social Security accounts, because I think people should have the responsibility of taking in large measure, control of their own retirement funds. The Democratic Party will never go for that. I’m much … I have very complicated views, which are terrible on television about affirmative action. But, I, I just … I don’t support affirmative action all out, although I’m not sure I want it abolished. On things like abortion I’m pro-choice until you get to the last trimester. So I don’t know what party represents me.

HEFFNER: What then do you do when somebody says, “hey, let’s take the present administration and its policy or attitude or, more importantly, actions toward a number of things …what, what happens …


HEFFNER: … to David Brooks? Where does he go?

BROOKS: The, the present Administration advocates a muscular Teddy Roosevelt style foreign policy and a Libertarian, do nothing style domestic policy. And so, I’m much more comfortable with the foreign policy. I really do believe in the chance to help transform the Middle East and to liberate Iraqi people.

Domestically, I’m much less sanguine; I’m much less supportive of what … a lot of the policies the President has said. The tax cuts, before I was a columnist, I occasionally wrote OpEd pieces for The New York Times and I opposed the tax cuts. I opposed them … a) because I didn’t think we should have tax cuts just before a war, it just seemed irresponsible to me to do that. I opposed the tax cuts in the first place because I would much have rather have seen an era of domestic reform, entitlement reform, education reform and I would rather have used the money for that than to give it back in tax cuts.

So I’m … some people call it “Big government conservatism”. The problem with Bush I would say domestically is we got “big government nothing”. His … the amount he spent on the Department of Education surpasses what Bill Clinton spent …the amount he spent on agency after agency … surpasses what the Democrats spent in the nineties, which just haven’t gotten the reform out of it, we’ve gotten the deficit.

HEFFNER: Where did the money go? Why is the conclusion you come to … or the balance sheet that you just offered … how do you account for it?

BROOKS: Well, the money that Bush has spent, a lot of it was spent to try to give himself some political inoculation … which hasn’t worked, by the way.

HEFFNER: Explain.

BROOKS: Department of Education … there were 40 years of basically Republican thinking. Not only Republican, but reform thinking about education involving charter schools, school choice, vouchers …the whole way to introduce some element of competition, to give parents more choice, to give them more control and communities more control of their schools … Bush set that all aside and he took more or less a corporate model for reforming education. Which is … we need to know what our inputs and our outputs are. And so let’s have a lot of testing. I’m dubious that that’s going to produce real reform. That’s going to change the worst off schools. And so he’s upped the budget to do that sort of stuff, but he hasn’t given us a way to actually change the structure of the school system.

HEFFNER: A corporate model.


HEFFNER: I’ve got to pick up the word “corporate”. Where does it play, how does it play in your evaluation of the Administration.

BROOKS: Well anybody who calls himself a “Teddy Roosevelt Conservative” understands that centralized corporate power is a threat, just as centralized … all centralized power is a threat. And these days I worry a lot about Wal-mart. I’m not totally hostile to Wal-mart, but it’s doing a lot of damage to a lot of places.

I, I’m sort of, of two minds about the corporate influence in the Administration. The idea that Bush is running the country to benefit his buddies in the Fortune 500 companies …

HEFFNER: Let’s set that aside …

BROOKS: … is, is the vastly …

HEFFNER: … it’s the meanness of spirit that we …

BROOKS: Right.

HEFFNER: … were talking about.

BROOKS: That’s vastly overblown. But the feeling that one doesn’t approach domestic policy with looking at magazines like The Public Interest, or The City Journal, which is a reformist, intellectual way of seeing things and thinking of new ways to do it … that’s what this …the problem of this Administration’s domestic policy is not bad ideas, it’s lack of ideas and lack of imagination about ideas.

And I do think that comes somewhat from the corporate model, which reduces things to management problems, and which does not think about social policies like an academic might think about it. You don’t have to carry out policy like an academic, but you’ve got to have some breadth of thinking … maybe we can do something radically different, maybe our understanding of human nature leads us to think that this sort of policy works better than that sort of policy. And there’s been a lack of imagination, lack of creativity domestically.

HEFFNER: Where, is there any place in the Administration where you find …

BROOKS: MmmHmm. There’s a … there’s a small pilot program, just to stay on education … to try some real experimentation in Washington, DC. Energy policy, I don’t think has taken advantage of the possibilities we have now to try to … John Kerry has done a lot more of this than any other Democratic candidate to try to make ourselves truly energy independent, using technologies, using other things. There hasn’t been a big aggressive push on that front.

Welfare, we’ve seen little things, but I wouldn’t say you’ve seen dramatic changes one way or another. You know, the two major domestic initiatives are education and Medicare. And in both those issues, these are policies that Ted Kennedy endorsed. And that’s not an indictment of the policies, but it’s a sign that what the Administration was seeking was a middle ground where they would spend some more money and we wouldn’t really shake up the system. And I think that’s essentially what happened.

HEFFNER: You, you …you used an expression before that I’m so glad you did … thank you very much, because it’s something I wanted to ask you about … human nature. And I ask my guests as frequently as I’m wise enough to do so how their sense of the nature of human nature impacts upon their philosophy. And here you are a philosopher, you’ve set that philosophy forth … several times … a week.

BROOKS: Yeah, what I would say is … I wouldn’t go back to human nature, I really don’t know what that means. Ask Lionel Tiger and the biochemists. But I believe all political arguments are essentially arguments about a view of history. What history is moving toward and that one’s theory of history really is much more determinative of what you believe than one’s view of just what human beings are in a state of nature.

And my view of history is that, as Lincoln said, “America is the last, best hope of Earth that all of human history is trending toward some form of democratic republicanism. Like we have here, which is why I’m … supported the effort in Iraq because I’m optimistic about the Shia(CHECK SPELLING) and the Sunni and the Kurds wanting basically a Democratic model and having the capacities to move them in that direction reasonably quickly. If you don’t think the Shia and the Sunni and the Muslim in Iraq have the capacities to do that, as a lot of Europeans think, then it’s folly to shake up Sadam’s …

HEFFNER: Well, the Europeans think they did not have the capacity, but there are others who don’t think that they have the interest in, or the will to and that we, in our Lincolnesque way …


HEFFNER: … we’re sure of what the last, great hope of mankind is. You and I agree with that. But that’s a strange thing to think has been exported all over the world.

BROOKS: Well, I would only point you to the recent poll result, I can’t remember whether it was the recent Zogby or Gallup Poll … the Iraqi people were asked what kind of country do you want to be like? And it was overwhelming, I mean it was Germany, it was the US … what don’t you want to be like? It was Iran, it was Egypt, it was Syria.

To me, if; you’re a person anywhere in the world, you see the Syrian model, you see the Germany/US model … well that’s not a close call. You see which system produces better lives for people. And I think if you look at the Iraqis, who were negotiating their Constitution, which to me is the most amazing event going on right now, that they’re out there negotiating a Constitution in the middle of the Arab world. There’s a consensus. The only thing they have in common is they basically know they want some sort of multi-party democracy that respects minority rights. Now whether they’ll actually get to that, is a, is a tough problem.

But they have a consensus about that and Fukiyama, Frances Fukiyama was right about that one thing.

HEFFNER: I knew that name would come up.

BROOKS: [Laughter] That people know what the best system is. And it’s not …doesn’t mean that our democracy is the same as Japan’s or Germany’s or France’s. But, it’s …there are deviations on a model.

HEFFNER: Ah … you say you’re interested in history rather than in question … the arid question of the nature of human nature. And the state of nature, what are we like? What gives you all that much hope in terms of the multitudes of people on this planet. We’re talking now not about this country and Germany …

BROOKS: Right.

HEFFNER: … and England and a few other places.

BROOKS: Well, in … in 1900 there were ten democracies in the world. Now there are roughly 150 … it depends how you count them. And they’re not all perfect, like ours … but they’re all …

HEFFNER: You smiled when you said that.

BROOKS: Yeah, well … if you were in Florida in 2000 you know … they’re not perfect. But they are moving in, in basically … I think moving in the right direction. The success stories of Latin America and Asia are tremendous success stories. Now that doesn’t mean if you read my column, my colleague Nick Christoff writing about Africa …

HEFFNER: Yes, indeed.

BROOKS: … that you can’t get incredibly depressed. And that doesn’t mean we’re all the way there. But I think the evidence of progress, the evidence of progress, both politically mean democracy. Economically, the number of people living at really subsistence levels has dropped, dramatically, over the past decades. The average living standards of Americans has sky-rocketed over the past decades of … a fellow named Greg Easterbrook has an incredibly persuasive book on this coming out in a few months. So I’m, I’m incredibly … because I’m progressive, I’m an incredible optimist just because I look at history.

HEFFNER: You say, “I’m progressive” …that you’re progressive, that has a certain meaning when you said before, you a TR Republican. He wasn’t very much of a Republican; he was very much of a progressive.

BROOKS: Oh, no, he considered himself a Republican and a Conservative and I think he was right to do so because he did believe in competition which is something, a word that was key to Giuliani.

HEFFNER: And abandoned his Republican Party.

BROOKS: Well, at the end …

HEFFNER: but it counts

BROOKS: … yeah, it depends. When, when you say you like TR, there are some people who only like the late TR … when I think he flaked off into weird ideas, but I liked the Presidential and pre-Presidential TR. Saying I’m a progressive is not an accident. I think what we’re doing in Iraq is extremely progressive, because it is based on the idea that human beings progress. And progress is normal. And the second thing to be said about that is there are no Conservatives in this country in the true sense. There are no political leaders except maybe Pat Buchanan who talk about going back to the past; who talk about maintaining order, who talk about preserving institutions. The people who call themselves Conservatives, believe in the free market which is not a Conservative institution. They have the most radical ideas about reforming government, Social Security privatization, privatization of this and that; cutting this or that department. The people who call themselves Conservatives often have the most radical ideas because in the United States there are not true Conservatives. Whereas in Europe you really do get people who feel rooted to blooded soil and who want to keep things the way they are. But it’s not a large part of our politics.

HEFFNER: The enterprise system, there is an equivocation I, I, I sense here on, on your part about free enterprise.

BROOKS: Well I mean, as Irving Crystal said … two cheers for capitalism; it’s very hard to give the system two cheers … ah, three cheers. But what it has done is create a lot better life opportunities for billions of people around the world.

Now let’s take Wal-mart which is a subject which I’m interested in …

HEFFNER: Yeah, I gather that’s a bug of yours.

BROOKS: It’s, you know, dominates … American commerce. And when it comes into a town, it gives people low price goods and an easy way to get them. And if you’re not making a lot of money, that’s valuable. On the other hand, we all know that it empties out small town downtowns. I, I … one of the other things it does, is it undercuts supermarkets by 14%, which is just an amazing advantage it has in the marketplace, has it by virtue of its size. It can go to the … General Mills, and say, “I’m only going to pay so much for that box of cereal.” And Safeway, even as big as Safeway is can’t do that. So it just threatens to swallow up all sorts of things.

And it does it because it’s good, because it’s doing a good job at what it tries to do. But nonetheless you can’t look at that without some series of qualms about what it’s going to do to Safeway; what’s it’s going to do to local grocers, what it’s going to do local towns and how anybody is going to stop this thing.

HEFFNER: How anybody is going to stop this thing. The implication is then, that some force will.

BROOKS: Well …

HEFFNER: … must …

BROOKS: … historically what happens is somebody else comes in and tries to think of a better way to do it.

HEFFNER: But you don’t think that’s going to happen?

BROOKS: Well, the people at Wal-Mart are so good at what they do, I don’t see it happening soon.

HEFFNER: Then your solution?

BROOKS: Well, I don’t know what my solution would be. As I say, I’m not a Wal-Mart hater, because they provide an important service for a lot of people. I, I … just the thing that comes to mind, just in this one instance is that … one of things I’ve heard from people in retail … is that people will not drive more than five or ten miles to go to a big store for groceries or anything else. They just don’t want to drive that far. So you could zone areas and through some creative zoning you could create a situation where Wal-Mart is there for people who want that low cost, those low cost goods, but it doesn’t destroy everything.

HEFFNER: When you … when you say “you could”, what you’re saying is using the power of government.

BROOKS: Yeah. I’m not a Libertarian. I believe in using the power of government to smash centralized power, whether centralized power is the National Education Association, the welfare state when it was …I thought destroying families. Welfare reform was not getting the government off people’s backs, welfare reform was getting government more intrusive in people’s lives, giving them strong incentives and demanding that they work. And so that’s not, these are not Libertarian reforms. I’m not part of the Dick Libertarian wing of the Republican party.

HEFFNER: Who is, by the way? Importantly.

BROOKS: Well, there’s a fellow in Washington named Grover Norquist who’s an important Republican activist. And he does represent an important wing of the Party.

HEFFNER: And in the Administration?

BROOKS: I think there are very few people like that in the Administration. There are people who support tax cuts as may stimulate the economy. But there … the Libertarian high-water mark was the Gingrich revolution; when Dick Armey and Tom Delay, he may, he may count as some one, who’s in this camp, came in and they had two hundred agencies they wanted to get rid of. They wanted to reduce the size of government so it was 25% of gross domestic product. They had this Libertarian vision, government was the problem.

My colleague, my then colleague Bill Crystal and I wrote a piece which objected to the anti-government vitriole of, of those days. And we wrote a sentence in the middle of the piece which was published in the Wall Street Journal, which said, “how can you love your country, if you hate it’s government?” And we thought this was just, you know, rhetorical flash, flourish. But many people, include Phil Gramm, the Senator of Texas, Robert Novak, the columnist were very critical of that sentence because they said, “no, you have to hate the government.” And we’re saying, “how can you hate the government, this country is founded by documents creating that government.” And so you can want it reduced … this or that, but the overall hatred of government is, is politically self-destructive, but unwise in all sort of ways.

HEFFNER: And you think really doesn’t have very much staying power today.

BROOKS: No, I think since the Gingrich revolution, the Libertarian effort has really flagged and Bush, in his campaign ran against that. He ran on the idea of Compassionate Conservativism, which was government solving problems. Not in a Liberal way, but in a Conservative way; I wish he’d been more aggressive in following that up. If he’d spent more time at the Manhattan Institute here in new York, he would have had a lot of actual policy ideas he could have put into practice. Decided not to do that for whatever reason.

HEFFNER: What will that cost him, do you think, in 2004?

BROOKS: Oh, nothing. [Laughter] If, if … I think it cost the country because we don’t have the reforms that would have been put in place. But in 2004 we’ll be a better rock in the economy. And Republicans are so solidly behind him because they believe in what was done in Iraq. I think there may be a sense that the tax cuts, which as I say I opposed, are going to handcuff him. Because he’s going to need a domestic agenda. Not only in 2004, but for the next four years, if he wins. How do you have a domestic agenda if there’s no money for anything. And so, in some weird way I think the tax cuts may come to bite him in that sense.

HEFFNER: I won’t say whether I hope so or not …

BROOKS: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: But I want to say “thank you very much, David Brooks for joining me again here on The Open Mind.”

BROOKS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.