David Brooks Hits the Panic Button

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Times columnist David Brooks sure does wish Republican voters would do something about Trump and Cruz.Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times

There’s been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about the Republican Establishment coming to grips with a GOP presidential nominating contest that could soon become a choice between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and which choice said Establishment would make in that Hobbesian situation.  

But now comes New York Times columnist David Brooks to reject that choice in a panic-stricken column that calls on the great unwashed Republican primary voters to save the Establishment’s bacon.  

It’s odd enough to see Brooks identify himself as a Republican, panicked or otherwise. He typically likes to position himself far, far above the ignorant partisan armies clashing by night, a condor wheeling and soaring in broad, high-minded arcs before eventually landing on ground that happens to coincide with the short-term positions of the GOP. But it seems the present emergency is now too dire for these sort of dialectics. 

Rarely has a party so passively accepted its own self-destruction. Sure, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are now riding high in some meaningless head-to-head polls against Hillary Clinton, but the odds are the nomination of either would lead to a party-decimating general election.

So what is to be done?

What’s needed is a grass-roots movement that stands for governing conservatism, built both online and through rallies, and gets behind a single candidate sometime in mid- to late February. In politics, if A (Trump) and B (Cruz) savage each other then the benefits often go to Candidate C. But there has to be a C, not a C, D, E, F and G.

I suppose this is an advance endorsement of the idea that whichever Establishment candidate wins that “lane” in New Hampshire — whose primary is right on the brink of “mid-February” — should have it all to himself thereafter. But who will insist on Jeb’s super-pac disgorging its money, or Kasich not holding on until Ohio, or Rubio and Bush not holding on until Florida, or Christie throwing in the towel while his ego still rages unappeased? Oh, that’s right: a “grass-roots movement that stands for governing conservatism,” whatever that might be. Seems it will have to be something different from the usual Republican formula:

This new movement must come to grips with two realities. First, the electorate has changed. Less-educated voters are in the middle of a tidal wave of trauma. Labor force participation is dropping, wages are sliding, suicide rates are rising, heroin addiction is rising, faith in American institutions is dissolving.

Second, the Republican Party is not as antigovernment as its elites think it is. Its members no longer fit into the same old ideological categories. Trump grabbed his lead with an ideological grab bag of gestures, some of them quite on the left. He is more Huey Long than Calvin Coolidge.

So the “Republican conspiracy” needs to preempt that appeal:

What’s needed is a coalition that combines Huey Long, Charles Colson and Theodore Roosevelt: working-class populism, religious compassion and institutional reform.

Does any of that sound like Jeb! Bush to you? Or Marco Rubio? Or Chris Christie? Or John Kasich? Will this new “grassroots movement” that’s supposed to arise in a matter of weeks recognize its hero, and will that happen to coincide with the wishes of a plurality of New Hampshire primary voters? Is there any remote chance the tepid “Reformicon” agenda Brooks alludes to in casting about for something “governing conservatives” can talk about will light fires in the electorate?

Hell if David Brooks knows. But he’s laid down his marker and will now presumably flee back to higher ground.