PLAYBOY: Does the middle class relate to the Occupy movement, which attacks the disparity of one percent of Americans having 42 percent of the wealth?
BROOKS: My guess is that they view the Occupy movement as a bunch of rich kids who majored in English and poetry. I also think they would differ on a core belief of the Occupy movement that people have become powerless against the corporations. Many middle-class Americans don’t believe that. They still believe that you control your own economic destiny. Most Americans are still firmly convinced that if you work hard, you’ll succeed. And they don’t believe that the government is going to help them, which is why they support the capitalist ethos.
PLAYBOY: Still, there’s evidence that there’s no passionate support for the Republican side.
BROOKS: Actually, the weakness of both sides suggests an opening for a white working-class candidate in a third party. If it comes down to Obama against Romney, there’s a huge opening. I was having coffee with a friend yesterday, and we were saying that if Pat Buchanan ran with Ralph Nader, there could be such a strong left-right working-class coalition behind them that they would get 30 percent of the vote, no problem.
PLAYBOY: Nader and Buchanan? Talk about an unlikely pairing. They represent extremes on the left and the right.
BROOKS: Actually, they agree on a lot. They agree on corporate stuff and are both against the Washington business oligarchy.
PLAYBOY: At the time of this interview there’s no strong third-party movement. How much of a challenge does Romney face to get the nomination?
BROOKS: He has glaring weaknesses, obviously. Americans want a sense that they know where your character comes from, and they don’t think it comes from politics. You’d better have a story about how your pre-political character emerged. For John McCain it was the prisoner-of-war story. For Obama it was the search for his father and the rise from his childhood to Harvard Law School. For Clinton it was also the traumatic family. You have to have a story to tell, and that’s a problem for Romney. He can’t say, “My dad was a millionaire and I’m a millionaire. I served as a missionary in France and tried to convert people in Bordeaux to give up wine.” That’s his story, but he can’t say that. Peter Hart, the pollster, did a focus group in Ohio where he asked people who from their middle-school class the candidates reminded them of. Before the sexual allegations that caused him to drop out, Herman Cain reminded people of the funny, popular kid. Rick Perry reminded them of the bully. Romney reminded them of the rich kid with all the privileges. That’s his problem.
PLAYBOY: And yet you think he can win?
BROOKS: Yes, because the general rule is that the second-term election is a referendum on the incumbent. Especially if the economy still sucks, the late deciders will say, “Let’s go for something different.” But it’s getting tighter as things get a little better.
PLAYBOY: You’ve made it clear that you’ve been disappointed by Obama, saying you were “a sap” for believing in him. What has most disappointed you?
BROOKS: I still have personal admiration for him. But I was talking with my good friend E.J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post, who also admires Obama. I realized that we admire totally different Obamas. I admire the post-partisan guy who’s going to rise above partisanship and unite the country. He admires the liberal community activist. I thought my Obama was the real Obama. He thought his was. In the past year, I guess I’d say he has more reason to think his Obama is the real Obama. Personally, I still respect him. He has remarkable skills and remarkable intellect. I thought he was the right person to change the tone and run an intellectually honest administration. In some ways he’s lived up to that, but in some ways he’s been way too political—stupidly political—and shortsighted.
PLAYBOY: Is your main complaint that he has been too liberal?
BROOKS: The basis of my conservatism is epistemological modesty, the idea that we can’t know much. I’m suspicious of people in Washington thinking they can understand complex systems well enough to regulate them. Obama has a lot more confidence in technocrats to understand and solve complex problems. With financial reform, he gave a lot of power to regulators. In Medicare reform he gave a lot of power to a board of experts—more regulators. I think no one’s that smart. I guess that’s why he’s a Democrat and I’m not. Democrats believe that if you get smart people in a room, they can solve a problem, and I don’t agree.
PLAYBOY: You don’t want regulation, but do you disagree that unbridled capitalism is at least partly responsible for the decade’s economic disaster?
BROOKS: My general political philosophy is to use government to help the market function better. I’m not a libertarian. I’m not a liberal. I’m a Hamiltonian precisely for that reason.
PLAYBOY: Have you had any moral quandaries about calling yourself a Republican at a time when the party has gotten far more conservative, reflecting the influence of the Tea Party and the religious right?
BROOKS: They have a name for us now, RINOs—Republicans in name only—which I guess describes me. I don’t mind being a rhino. They’re strong, fierce animals.
PLAYBOY: Not all Republicans accept that as an option. Some say you’re a traitor to their party.
BROOKS: If you talk to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, they don’t regard me as a Republican or a conservative. I think I am. I think I’m the original conservative. I guess I’d say I’m a conservative and not a Republican. I’ve never identified as a Republican, and that’s because I’m a journalist, not a political activist. The fact is, if you look at Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, they’re deeply anti-conservative.
PLAYBOY: They and their supporters would vehemently disagree.
BROOKS: They are, because they’re ideological. Conservatives shouldn’t be. Conservatism should be all about context. For example, from a proper conservative point of view, it’s insane to have a universal rule about taxes. If you need revenue, then taxes are an instrument to provide the revenue you need. They’ve turned it into this ideology where you never have tax increases. That goes against the whole grain of what conservatism is supposed to be about. I’ve written more columns than I ever thought I would that basically say a pox on both your houses, wishing for that third party.
PLAYBOY: Republican or not, other than Obama, in debates and your column you most often defend or advocate the GOP point of view. In the meantime, many Republicans espouse views you’ve ardently disagreed with. They deny global warming, oppose abortion, disbelieve evolution and want creationism taught in schools. From your writing and commentary, it’s clear you disagree with those positions. How do you support a party you disagree with?
BROOKS: We all make choices. If Romney has a Medicare plan I like but he doesn’t think global warming is real, or he pretends he doesn’t, I’ll take that, because Medicare is more important at the moment. Global warming isn’t an issue foremost on my mind at the moment, though if the oceans were about to flood Bethesda—if global warming became the most salient issue—I’d go for Al Gore.