Both also fetishize balance. In meetings, Obama solicits dissenting views. In columns, Brooks pits one ideology against another—fiscal hawkishness versus federal dynamism, democratic evangelism versus imperial modesty, social safety nets versus innovation incentives—and watches them slug it out on the page. They also share an appreciation of the limits of human power. In December, after Obama announced his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan, Brooks praised his “Christian realism” in recognizing that “war is both folly and necessary.”
Brooks cuts the music when he sees Obama moving away from the middle. On health care, for example, “they made a mistake in thinking the country was ready for a New Deal.” Political polarization ensued, and Brooks largely blames Obama. “They say Republicans chose this negative strategy,” says Brooks. “And there’s truth to that. But he created a climate where it was completely rewarding for them to do that.” America isn’t inherently ungovernable; Obama made it that way.
Of course, the fact that Brooks isn’t fully onboard is what keeps the White House calling. It’s a fine balance. Toe the administration line, and they’ll take you for granted. Overcriticize, and they’ll write you off as a lost cause.
T he NPR building in downtown Washington is the closest thing there is to a liberal Death Star. When Brooks takes me there on his weekly Friday media tour, I half-expect them to fingerprint him. Quite the opposite: Brooks has finally earned his official NPR badge after eighteen years of service. “I wear this with pride,” he says, tapping the plastic I.D. card. The badge still says temporary, perhaps as a warning.
First on the docket is NPR’s “All Things Considered,” where he appears every Friday alongside E. J. Dionne Jr., then on to PBSNewsHour with Mark Shields. “I only do shows with Irish Catholics from Massachusetts whose names you can combine with mine to create show-business names,” says Brooks as he signs me in. “Brooke Shields, Brooks and Dionne.” A quality he doesn’t mention: liberalism.
Brooks spends most of his professional life with liberals. At the Times’ Washington bureau, his office on “Murderers’ Row”—the columnists’ hallway—is flanked by Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman. He appears almost exclusively on programs with liberal audiences. Brooks says he dislikes the term “liberals’ favorite conservative.” But he doesn’t do much to deter it.
If Brooks appeals to liberals, it’s probably because he was one—and still is, culturally. He was born into a Jewish family in Toronto and grew up in New York City. He attended the Über-liberal (except for its economics and law departments) University of Chicago. He grew up relatively irreligious. He watched a lot of movies in college. He gets liberals. “I think it’s more a matter of respect than agreement,” he says. “I don’t have a sense that they’re idiots.”
But there’s more agreement than he sometimes cares to admit. He’s pro-choice. He supports gay marriage. (“We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage,” he wrote in 2003. “We should insist on gay marriage.”) He doesn’t mind government projects so long as they incentivize mobility and innovation rather than stifling them—a caveat that could conceivably serve as a fig leaf for any kind of government action.
The result is an ongoing debate among liberals over whether Brooks is really conservative—and whether he believes what he says when he sides with the right. I asked him if he ever feels the need to play the role of conservative at the Times. “I used to, but now I’ve given that up,” he says. Indeed, in some of his early columns, one can detect a whiff of bad conscience. Since then, Brooks says he’s learned that “you can’t play a role. It happens too fast. You just have to say what you think.”
There’s still the occasional odd rightward lurch, suggesting some latent political schizophrenia. Brooks argued in January that passing health-care reform after a Martha Coakley loss in Massachusetts would be “political suicide. It would be the act of a party so arrogant, elitist, and contemptuous of popular wisdom that it would not deserve to govern. Marie Antoinette would applaud, but voters would rage.” Brooks opposed health-care reform, sure. But saying that Democrats don’t deserve to govern? It’s as if Sean Hannity suddenly seized control of Brooks’s brain, then vanished just as quickly.
For the most part, though, Brooks stays determinedly above the ideological fray. If his even-handedness feels calculated, that’s because it is. Anytime he speaks with a Republican senator, he tries to talk to a Democrat next. If he reads National Review’s The Corner, he then visits the Huffington Post. When National Journal magazine surveyed Washington insiders about the most influential columnists, Thomas Friedman topped the list. But he was twice as popular among Democrats as Republicans. Brooks came in second, but Democrats and Republicans favored him exactly equally. “That made me happy,” says Brooks.