The reality, of course, is that actual independent voters don't give a damn about what David Brooks thinks and only care about whether they have jobs and whether they feel economically secure. You can read John Judis, who breaks this down pretty well in his piece debunking the myth of independent voters from late last year:
The two other groups, the Disaffected Republicans and the Doubting Democrats, who make up 36 percent of Pew’s sample, are swing voters who are not dependable partisans. They are overwhelmingly white. They are not likely to have graduated from college and many of them have not attended college at all. Most of them make less than $75,000. It’s fair to characterize them as white working-class voters. Why are they independents and not Republicans and Democrats? According to the Pew poll, both groups believe that “parties care more about special interests than average Americans.”
And this is generally true! Actual swing voters generally support parties based on whatever special interest they happen to be angrier at any given time. As I've said in the past, a lot of blue-collar swing voters will support Republicans when they want lower taxes and tough-on-crime/family values sorts of policies while they'll support Democrats when they want to protect middle-class entitlement programs and to kick Wall Street's ass. Most importantly, they vote based on how well the economy happens to be doing. They do not, repeat, not, pick up their copies of the New York Times every day and say to themselves, "Wow, David Brooks and Tom Friedman are reading my mind! We need a third party that coincidentally conforms to every one of their ideas!"
Anyway, back to Brooks. Today he's upset because it seems, it least for the time being, that Obama has realized that taking David Brooks' advice is not actually the key to win over independent voters.
Yes, I’m a sap. I believed Obama when he said he wanted to move beyond the stale ideological debates that have paralyzed this country. I always believe that Obama is on the verge of breaking out of the conventional categories and embracing one of the many bipartisan reform packages that are floating around.
But remember, I’m a sap. The White House has clearly decided that in a town of intransigent Republicans and mean ideologues, it has to be mean and intransigent too. The president was stung by the liberal charge that he was outmaneuvered during the debt-ceiling fight. So the White House has moved away from the Reasonable Man approach or the centrist Clinton approach.
But here's the thing: Obama really tried doing all that crap. He did! I remember slapping myself in the forehead all summer (and being too depressed to even attempt blogging) reading about it! Don't you remember that column you wrote this past July hilariously titled "The Grand Bargain Lives" where you said that Obama and Boehner were "close to a deal" that would cut Medicare and Social Security in exchange for some tax increases? Let's use the wayback machine to find it:
At the last minute, two bipartisan approaches heave into view. In the Senate, the “Gang of Six” produces one Grand Bargain. Meanwhile, President Obama and John Boehner, the House speaker, have been quietly working on another. They suddenly seem close to a deal.
There’s a lot you don’t know about these two Grand Bargains. But they probably have the elements that have been part of just about every recent bipartisan debt proposal: some sort of tax reform that lowers overall rates while raising revenue by closing loopholes; cuts in the level of entitlement spending without much fundamental reform; a freeze on domestic discretionary spending. Mostly, there will be vagueness. The specifics of what exactly will be cut and who will be taxed will not be filled in.
You are being asked to support a foggy approach, not a specific plan. You are being asked to do this even though you have no faith in the other party and limited faith in the leadership of your own. You are being asked to risk your political life for an approach that bears little resemblance to what you would ideally prefer.
Do you do this? I think you do.
So let's recap: This past summer you urged members of Congress to support a vague package that none of them had time to read that would have promised both tax increases and entitlement cuts. I may not be a political scientist or anything but none of those three things -- tax increases, entitlement cuts or vague bills that no one has read -- are popular with the independent voters you claim to speak for. The politics of such a deal were so transparently stupid that even Mickey Kaus can see it.
Thankfully for us all, the Republicans decided to K.O. this Grand Bargain and then proceeded to get a very-crappy-but-not-catastrophic deal with $2.4 trillion in future budget cuts with no additional revenues.
Question: Did independent voters see that Obama had done his earnest best to compromise with Republicans and give him a pat on the head? Hell no -- they concluded that he was an ineffectual weakling who had no idea what the hell he was doing. What's more, it led to the further demoralization of a Democratic base that had been getting its butt handed to it pretty much since the day Bush left office. The approach that Brooks advocates was, in fact, a giant loser.
Triangulation, centrism and most-reasonable-guy-in-the-room-ism can work when things are going well. When Clinton was up for reelection in '96 the economy was recovering, people were feeling better about the direction of the country and Newt Gingrich had just committed a string of political blunders that lessened his ability to be an effective leader. But when there's high unemployment, a continuing mortgage crisis and the prospect of a double-dip recession, people don't want the most reasonable guy in the room. They want help.
If Obama has finally realized that David Brooks has no idea what he's talking about, well, that's a small step in the right direction. It may not win him reelection but it will at least guarantee that he receives more than one vote (i.e., David Brooks' vote and no votes from anyone else) come November 2012.