Joe Hagan Grills David Brooks About Palin, Voting for Obama, and Exile From Conservativism

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Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, New York Times columnist David Brooks and New York's Joe Hagan discuss pulling the lever for Obama, whether Brooks is worried about his brand, and the attempt to "excommunicate" the columnist from the conservative movement.

J.H.: Where are you?

D.B.: At home, in my luxurious office.

J.H.: Is that where all the columns get typed?

D.B.: If these walls could talk, what a tedious story they would tell. I've got an old photo of T. Roosevelt looking down in case I get out of hand.

J.H.: T. Rex! You must have been jealous of Edmund Morris getting to talk to him.

D.B.: I was, especially because I think Morris (whom I admire enormously) Obama-ized Roosevelt. He's more conservative than that piece gave him credit for.

J.H.: Ha. Well, let's cut to the chase here, David. How hard is it going to be for you to pull the lever for Barack Obama next week?

D.B.: Times policy forbids me from answering that question with any honesty. We're not allowed to publicly endorse. How do you want me to dodge?

J.H.: Having seen what McCain and Palin are made of in the last few weeks, the messages they've campaigned on and how undisciplined they've become, would you be unspeakably happy if they somehow won it at this point?

D.B.: I'm never unspeakably happy. Must be the serotonin levels. I do remember what kind of senator McCain has been — an outstanding one.

J.H.: Good enough. But are your friends in the McCain campaign still taking your calls? You called their V.P. a fatal cancer. You've recently become the second-most beloved conservative among liberal, latte-sipping New York Times readers (just behind Christopher Buckley).

D.B.: I've had contacts with both campaigns in the past week, though I imagine some of my dear friends in McCainland do not sing arias at the thought of me. I love the man. Dislike the campaign.

J.H.: Like a lot of people, I had great admiration for him in 2000. I'm reminded of that every time Jon Stewart pulls up a clip of him from that campaign and it's the polar opposite of what he's saying today. If he somehow won, wouldn't you question just who he really was at the end of the day? Or would you simply trust him to default to the man you love? And why would you have that faith?

D.B.: I think governing is more real than campaigning. He's taken the blows for doing the right thing. The legitimate doubts are (a) he's not that organized, and (b) he hasn't resolved his small government Goldwater instincts from his interventionist Roosevelt instincts.

J.H.: Do you think he has a chance of winning?

D.B.: A tiny chance. The polls do seem to have tightened, but he'd have to keep the momentum going for the rest of the week. States like Virginia and Ohio do look bad right now, and the Rocky Mountains. I should add that though I like McCain, the GOP in its disarray is nearly as unfit to govern as the Democratic Party would be in euphoria.

J.H.: That's interesting. It's funny, I took your column "The Class War Before Palin" as practically your resignation from the Republican Party. Like, the tent shrank and there's no room left for the eggheads.

D.B.: I think the party needs deep and fundamental rethinking. But I'm still a Burke/T.R. conservative.

Maybe I'm just rebelling against all the D.C. pseudo-populists who are trying to excommunicate me from the movement. The more they hate me, the more I want in.

J.H.: That's just sad, David. But I guess your hero, McCain, is still inside the tent! (And I'll bet he'd like to get out of there right about now.) I want to be gentle in how I put this, but, honestly, David — has there REALLY been any place for your like in that tent for the last eight years? Except when Bush-Cheney needed intellectual allies to justify the Iraq war? They've been appealing to "the base" for a long time.

D.B.: I guess I should be clear. I don't self-identify as a Republican. I'm not in that business. I do interview a lot of Republicans, ranging from Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander to John McCain, and feel that my views overlap a lot with theirs. Of course I also get that tingle from Rahm Emmanuel, Chuck Schumer, and Barack Obama. We Hamiltonians are homeless.

J.H.: Ah, but your NYT readers need to feel that you're a bona fide Republican so that when you agree with them, they can feel smug. Still, it's clear that the David Brooks brand hinges on people getting the idea that you're the house conservative. Although, with Kristol there, you're pretty much a socialist now. Does all this crisis in the Republican Party damage your brand? You can't start liking Obama TOO much.

D.B.: Funny that you ask. As I travel a country threatened by financial crisis and scarred by war, the fate of the David Brooks brand is uppermost on everyone's mind. That's why I'm hiring the Microsoft ad team.

J.H.: Okay, back to McCain then. Both Jon Stewart and Hendrik Herztberg of The New Yorker have pointed out that in 2000 McCain justified higher taxes on wealthier Americans. When a student asked whether that wasn't socialism, he said no. How does implementing a top marginal tax rate of 39.6 percent make you a socialist? And is it unfair to call McCain a hypocrite?

D.B.: The tax issue is the clearest of his flip-flops, and the most self-destructive. He could be running as the person to restore fiscal discipline in the face of a bipartisan spending barrage if he hadn't forfeited that ground. Lesson: Every political cave-in ends up hurting him in the long run.

J.H.: Even though he wrote two books and has had a camera trained on him for two years straight, Obama apparently still remains an enigma to conservatives. On the one hand, there's the lack of a full record; on the other, there's this fear in Palin's America that he's a Manchurian candidate harboring all manner of dark forces. You've met the guy: Does his unknowableness worry you?

D.B.: A little. I think he's basically a moderate, but I notice all my lefty friends believe he's a full-on lefty. I'm comforted by the fact that his advisers are very smart and sensible.

J.H.: So you don't think he's a secret Muslim socialist?

D.B.: No. More like a Christian Schachtmanite.

J.H.: Unlike when I read you at the Times, I couldn't just click on Schachtmanite and have the definition spring up.

D.B.: Left-wingers in City College circles and beyond used to be divided between Lovestonites and Schachtmanites. I can't remember what the dispute was over, except that it was bitter and the Schachtmanites were smarter.

J.H.: Poor Lovestonites. Like the Flintstones, only not as funny. "Palin is smart, politically skilled, courageous and likable." Would you like to amend any part of this?

D.B.: No redos in column writing. Has political skills, obviously. Though also some weaknesses.

J.H.: Did you see W.?

D.B.: Nope.

J.H.: I bring that up because I want to segue back quickly to what I was saying before, about intellectuals in the Bush years. I mean, you clearly voted for him, and you've written plenty of columns praising him and have generally been an advocate, although probably a more intellectually honest one. Now that we're at the end of the Bush years, are you and other conservatives kind of embarrassed at what you supported? I don't mean to be mean, but I'm just genuinely curious whether you feel a sense of having made an epic historical miscalculation? Or perhaps you just feel you were sold a bill of goods if you thought Bush would promote policies you believed in.

D.B.: If you go back, you'll find my columns about Bush have always — from 1999 on — been much more ambivalent than you suggest. But sorting all this out would take a lot more time and space.

J.H.: I was thinking about your views on Iraq. But anyway, you've been a great sport, so thank you. What's your column going to be about? Obama's infomercial?

D.B.: No idea yet. Maybe the perils of IM chats.

Earlier: Matt Bai and Nate Silver Explain Why the Rays Have Better Odds Than McCain

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.