Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

My Reply to Brooks

Two quick rejoinders to Brooks’ column. First, while experience is indeed a leading source for the acquisition of prudence, it is not the only source. The reason people from Churchill to (most recently) Charles Murray (in his new book on education) emphasize the close study of history is that such study allows for "pattern recognition." Certainly Truman had little in the way of "experience" in the sense that Brooks recommends, but his prudence was informed by his own self-study of history. (Truman could discourse off the cuff on the history of the Mediterranean from the Peloponnesian War in service of explaining why we needed to come to the aid of Greece and in promulgating the Truman Doctrine.) Ditto Calvin Coolidge, who had little in the way of "experience" before becoming Vice President in 1920, not to mention Lincoln in 1860. Whether Palin has the aptitude toward prudence from reflection on history and what she has seen in her lifetime is an open question, but it is supercilious to suppose that only establishment-style experience suffices as a source of prudence.

A greater defect in Brooks’ column is his suggestion that the Bush Administration represents the same kind of anti-establishmentarianism that I identify in the Palin phenomenon. As has been mentioned, few incoming administrations have had more in the way of "experience" in the conventional sense--that was the argument for Dick Cheney, wasn’t it? Not to mention Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, etc. Despite Bush’s Texas mannerisms, this product of Yale and Harvard Business School (not to mention his whole family) is certainly part of the certified establishment of which I referred. The difficulties of the Bush administration (and I agree with much of Brooks’ critique of their governance) is not because they were anti-establishment outsiders, but because they went against the dominant half (the liberal half) of that establishment.

CLARIFICATION: I’ve had a couple people puzzle over an ambiguity in the last sentence above, which I see on re-reading it. It can be read to suggest that I think Bush should not have gone against the liberal establishment. Here’s what I sent back to one person: "What I mean is that Brooks is wrong to attribute Bush’s difficulties to being a genuine anti-establishment figure; rather, Bush is unpopular in large part because he set himself against the liberal establishment, which has exploited the unpopularity of the Iraq War and the fumbling of Katrina, etc, to drive down his popularity. I do think the Bush White House has made some large mistakes in the way they have governed, but they have nothing to do with experience or a supposed anti-establishment (broadly speaking) mentality. Bush’s many strengths will be appreciated in the fullness of time (starting with Brooks I predict)."

Discussions - 18 Comments

Steve. Isn't there also the Miss Marple argument? She could solve crimes everywhere because she knew human nature from studying it in her little town.

P.S. What do you mean in that last sentence? Presumably, you don't mean to imply that his mistakes were a result of going against the liberal establishment. His political difficulties, perhaps.

Yes, I'e had a couple people quiz me about the last graph. I'm going to amend it.

The real problem with the Brooks article (and this sentiment of suspicion from old-line conservatives in general) is that he imagines you are speaking against the possibility of real aristocracy. What you're really speaking against is the notion that the real aristocrats of America always come from the same well. You're not talking down knowledge, experience, wisdom or moral virtue as qualifications for office. You are, rather, laughing at the notion that all men (or women) with these qualities come from the same tired and (quite possibly) dried up well. Moreover, you are mocking the notion that the only or the best judges of the existence of those qualities in statesmen are to be found only within that same well. Trouble with wells is that they tend to be pretty dark, pretty damp and, consequently, pretty dank. I've got no problem with admitting that I have betters. But, like most people, I think I'm a better judge of them than the likes of David Brooks. And even if I'm wrong about my wisdom in so judging, I'm still right about the necessity and the justice of my doing it. And therefore, on a grand scale, you are right about the superior wisdom of the "regular" American people in so judging over and against the judgments of the self-anointed judges in the media and at universities.

I find the question of prudence preposterous. Ms. Palin has walked in woods where if you're not alert and cautious something might eat you. She has walked where the weather can kill you pretty quick. She has fished from an open boat in waters where many would fear to tread. Prudence? In spades.

In all fairness Roy, I mean really. I like to camp as much as the next guy and admire this aspect of Governor Palin's biography, but come on. The lessons one learns camping and fishing and hunting, and there are many good and valuable lessons to be learned, are not the equivalent of political wisdom or prudence. I have seen alot of attempts to try not to deal with certain limitations that Gov. Palin has but this takes the cake. I was willing to sit quietly as she was ushered into the "natural aristocracy" but this is really over the top.

Dear JC,

I too like hunting and fishing. I have, however never hunted where bears are hunting me. I have never fished anywhere where falling out of the boat can get you killed. Have you?


This Truman comparison is simply wrong. Harry Truman had 10 years experience as a senator before Roosevelt picked him as running mate. It is true that Truman was a surprise, and was considered something of a lightweight by many people, but he was hardly obscure and inexperienced. In fact, he had gained widespread praise - and a 1943 appearance on Time magazine's cover - for his wartime investigation of incompetence by the War Department and profiteering by private contractors. Before coming to Capitol Hill, he had wartime combat experience as an artillery officer and extensive political experience in local government, albeit as bit player in a notorious political machine.

George W. Bush's team might have been anti establishment in 1972, but surely not in 2000. Rumsfeld and Cheney had been senior White House aides in the mid 1970s for God's sake. Powell and Rice had been players since the 1980s. George W. Bush himself had been an advisor to his dad. For better and worse, the Bush administration was representative of the conservative establishment. If anyone in the administration lacked prudence, it was Donald Rumsfeld, who has the distinction of being both the youngest and the oldest Defense Sec. Can't get much more experienced than that.

Final point: Why should we assume that being a mayor and governor teach prudence less well than being a Senator and presidential candidate?

I loved your column yesterday and linked to it here. And then I responded to David Brooks column here.

What I find the most grating about Brooks' column, though, is his statement, obviously in reference to Palin, that, “Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.” He is right that democracy is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared, but no rational person could describe Palin as average. She is real, genuine and authentic, but not average in any way. How do these “elites” like Brooks not see that? And if he doesn’t mind moving out of the way, we average folk are presently using our wisdom to select Sarah Palin!

How many experienced people were there running for president in the last two years? How well did we like them? Perhaps the American people are not enjoying or appreciating their experienced politicians all that much. If experience of government is so wonderful, how have we come to this place wherein so many people are unhappy with the state of the nation in one way or another? Look at the approval ratings of the experienced. There is some other quality wanted in politics, just now.

How can Brooks get the Bush Administration so wrong? While there was some Texas cronyism (as there was Arkansas cronyism before it, and so on and so on), there were plenty of old hands with the kind of "experience" Brooks seems to admire.

What's more, for better or worse, there is ample evidence that GWB adds his own kind of "bookish" experience to the mix. He's allegedly an avid reader of history, capable of holding his own in conversations with professional historians. What's more, he's had the kind of mandarin education that Brooks seems to value--at least as good, if not better than, Kerry's and Gore's, though he can't trump Obama's editorship of the Harvard Law Review (an excellent reason at least to consider hiring him as a law professor). It's true that GWB's attitude toward his surroundings might, especially at Harvard Business School, have been a little ironic.

Finally, there's this. I remember reading (for review purposes) a collection of essays written by political scientists about the early years of the Bush Administration. What struck me then was how generally impressed they were, early on, about the administrative professionalism of the Bush Administration, which (you might recall) had much less time to gear up than its predecessors had and (I hope) than its successors will.

Steve, yes, exactly. 11 -- mega-dittoes. I would add that Bush's better judgments and his successes have tended to be anti-Establishment in political terms, and probably in origin, Brooks to the contrary. He is right to reject a very simplistic populism (common on the grassroots right) which despises elite education ipso facto, and despises governmental experience ipso facto. But he's wrong to go as far as he does.

Knippenburg described Bush as 'bookish' - let's see, add your own punchline here. That is like describing Karen Hughes as 'prepared' or Harriet Miers as 'qualified' or..., etc.

I think it is fair to say that experience is not all that great a predictor of who will be a successful President. From my perspective, the most important trait of a successful President is having a worldview that meshes with reality. Certainly, many will disagree on what is a correct worldview, but this is a question that each voter needs to address individually. I personally think that President Reagan was a successful President in large part because he perceived the world accurately. For example, unlike Jimmy Carter, Reagan did not need to spend hours analyzing whether gas price controls were good or bad because his worldview caused him to trust markets more than government interventionists.

On this aspect of leadership, I have so far liked what I have seen with Palin.

The second critical quality of a leader is to possess the ability make the correct worldview politically appealing. Again, this was one of the great traits of Ronald Reagan and again, I am liking what I see with Palin.
I wish that Palin had more experience and a longer track record. However, I think that conservatives have seen enough to feel comfortable with the Palin choice.
I would compare her to Biden who sees the world through a far more liberal lens than most voters and who is a real bumbler in terms of selling his worldview. O'Bama, from my perspective, has a very distorted view of how the world actually works and for that reason will likely become our next Jimmy Carter if elected.

Knippenburg described Bush as 'bookish' - let's see, add your own punchline here. That is like describing Karen Hughes as 'prepared' or Harriet Miers as 'qualified' or..., etc.

No liberal elitism here, nosiree....

I am not yet prepared to jettison the category of political experience when examining the credentials of someone seeking national public office.

Also, the prudence or political wisdom that experience has (hopefully) wrought should not be confused with or exchanged for the possession of a certain “world view” or the “correct” policy instincts. Untutored by experience, government by “world view” can amount to government by ideology and make it difficult for one to work with the opposition as well as competing elements within one’s own party. Some (such as Fred Barnes) have argued that Palin has essentially been a pragmatic conservative, governing from the center-right and not giving undue attention to certain hot-button social issues. With the whole of her executive history in view, this might be true. Nevertheless, at least on a tactical level, Palin does seem to compensate for her lack of experience by being--as Brooks observes--“excessively decisive,” i.e. imprudent. I’m all for ethics and responsibility in government, but her opposition-razing rhetoric and actions are for me uncomfortably redolent of the spirit of ’94--great for base mobilization, bad for governing.

Palin does seem to compensate for her lack of experience by being--as Brooks observes--“excessively decisive,” i.e. imprudent.

Can you cite some instances of her alleged imprudence? In all the media hatchet jobs on her, I have yet to see that charge seriously made.

Untutored by experience, government by “world view” can amount to government by ideology and make it difficult for one to work with the opposition as well as competing elements within one’s own party.

Sounds like a fine argument against Obama and Biden, both of whoms actions are dictated entirely by their world view.

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