David Brooks: The Alternate History

The Democrats could be heading toward a defeat of historic proportions in November, but it is possible to imagine a scenario in which things might have turned out differently:

Since things on planet Earth, or, rather, Eaarth, aren’t going to so well, we’re seeing more people propose counterfactuals.

I don’t buy all of what conservative columnist David Brooks put forward in his NYT column, “The Alternate History” — the Democratic defeat is going to be grim, but unlikely to break historical records for mid-term elections — but the end is mostly dead on:

April [2009] brought the cruelest fight: whether to spend the rest of the year getting health care reform or a new energy policy. Obama decided to do energy first. The economy was uppermost on everybody’s mind. Americans were wondering where new innovations would come from, what new jobs would emerge.

By doing energy first, Democrats were able to spend the entire summer talking about technological advances, private sector growth and breakthrough productivity gains.

Obama toured one small business after another, and got his energy bill. In the fall, he gave a series of major speeches under the heading: “Our Children’s Economy.” He laid out a strategy for a century of growth.

Americans didn’t like all of it. But this wasn’t conventional big government liberalism. The Democrats seemed to be a serious party attending to serious things. When November 2010 rolled around, the unemployment rate was still high, but Democratic leaders had prepared voters for that. In the meantime, America was rebuilding its core, strengthening itself for better days ahead.

If only.

Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions:


28 Responses to David Brooks: The Alternate History

  1. Lore says:

    This a case of fixing the flat tire on the ole car today even though the engine is about to blow up next week.

  2. Lou Grinzo says:

    I don’t buy Brooks’ vision for a nanosecond. No matter how artfully Obama and the Dems positioned and presented energy policy, between the general public not wanting to hear the message and their (the public’s) being told 24/7 by Fox, Limbaugh, et al. that it was “a big government takeover” or a “new world order” or whatever right wing wet dream they cared to cook up for any given news cycle, the support for it would have been minimal. If nothing else, the right would have bashed Obama for doing nothing on health care, an issue that “affected real people in their daily lives” and instead pursuing his pet project that sounded like Jimmy Carter, the sequel.

    (It’s easy to think like the right. Just ignore all inclination you have to make sense or be consistent or (it is to laugh) help the country, focus 100% on your own boundless lust for power and money, and the strategies just come pouring out. Of course, you then have to drink yourself into a stupor to try to forget the self-loathing that inevitably sets in after your foray into the fetid swamp of right wingery, but that’s another matter entirely.)

  3. That’s the blessing of this issue.

    Politics really does not matter.

    Global climate change follows only the science – physics not philosophy. Everything we have done is a lesson – globally, we will decide whether we have learned from errors, assigning blame now is just piling on.

  4. SunMan says:

    This is a dangerous path to travel: Coulda shoulda woulda.

    Fact is it’s not over. Climate change issues or politics. To spend time even thinking about an alternate history has more to do with a writer’s deadline and a subtle statement of support and understanding that from the get-go, President Obama was faced with near impossible conditions.

    Brooks realizes this, yet considering his profession as a conservative, but educated man… he cannot come right out and say it.

    After all, Harry Reid needed 60 votes to do anything in the Senate and he does not exactly inspire motivation. Never forget some of the pieces that were “considered” part of the 60, but in all practicality were DINO: Liebermann, Lincoln, Landreau, and Nelson.

    When it came to an energy / climate bill, the numbers could have been even worse. Simply stated, the GnOPe had enough solidarity to block almost everything they wanted… and although I am extremely disheartened that a climate/energy/jobs bill has not yet made it, they did get some incredibly major projects done.

    Our job is to educate, consolidate, and stay together.

  5. fj2 says:

    True to form David Brooks comes off as quite thin. Sorry. Nothing memorable here.

    What’s that joke about the alligators and draining the swamp?

  6. Peter says:

    Lets face it Climate Progress Visitors- there will be no new energy policy or curbs in Greenhouse emissions for at least the next 6-10 years.

    From what I am still learning- the amount of C02 currently measured by the NOAA is the true amount in the atmosphere we are now seeing 390ppmv- we are entering a new ‘Frontier’ and not the one by JFK in 1961.

    Lets see what 400ppm brings us this decade- ‘fasten your seat belts,its going to be a bumpy ride’ B Davis 1950 ‘All About Eve’.

  7. fj2 says:

    Anyway, Michelle said she’d help.

  8. mike roddy says:

    Maybe Obama dogged it because, with the oil and coal companies in charge, it was a sure loser in the Senate,

    We need to watch administrative decisions closely, and GOP efforts to stop them. That’s wherw the action will be’ especially. EPA.

  9. EricG says:

    It’s clear that Congress and the Democratic base would not have gone along with any strategy that didn’t start with health care. The Obama magic wand is just a fantasy. Reality is much harder.

  10. Rob Honeycutt says:

    What is it with MSM these days? It’s turned into Fantasyland. “Defeat of historic proportions?” Give me a break! I’m going off Nate Silver’s predictions saying that Dems are going to lose seats but hold both houses. Not a good thing but how is that historic proportions?

    And this story about what Obama shoulda done? That’s even more loony! Does he think that for some reason if Obama had chosen Energy as the first big problem to tackle that the right wing attack machine was going to play nice?

    [JR: Silver hasn’t called the House yet. Several well known predictors say it will be lost, but some others don’t. Will probably be close.]

  11. hapa says:

    @ rob honeycutt

    no way to know what he thinks. part of his role to play is to convince the powerful public that conservatives are waiting hopefully for a chance to reach across the aisle. he doesn’t have to believe it to sell it.

  12. فوتبول says:

    for this post

  13. homunq says:

    There’s one thing that Obama and the Dems could have done first that would have changed the outcome.

    Filibuster reform.

    We’d have a climate bill now. We’d have stronger health care, with a public option. We’d have about twice the bills passed, overall. We’d have a stronger stimulus, and thus a better economy, which is the only factor that would really shift the outlook for the midterms.

    OK, doing it now is second best. But still worthwhile. Without filibuster reform, no climate reform; and that dooms the world to a lot of misery, and probably the US to a lot of payback someday. I’d even live through another 2 years where the right controlled all 4 branches of government (including the media – CNN, NPR, and MSNBC are all center-right, and Fox is of course off the charts), if at the end of that we could have a filibuster-free chance for a real climate bill.

    But Brooks’s idea that changing the order of anything else would have helped, is typical Brooksian image-centric pseudo-wise non-refutable hindsight. (And those are the nice adjectives). Obama has failed to rise to the challenge on content, not on order or form or tactics. I’m willing to give that ground to Rahm and Rove.

    Here’s hoping for an 11th-hour conversion and some big ideas. I won’t hold my breath though.

  14. paulm says:

    As food prices jump, UN group tries to avoid fuelling new crisis

    Still, Mr. Abbassian said the recent sharp rise in food prices is not welcome and that extreme weather conditions, which seem more common, will ensure that food markets become more volatile than usual. Volatility, he notes, attracts speculators, whose trades can only increase the frequency of wild price swings. “Liquidity can come from any direction at any time,” he said.

  15. Ryan T says:

    If it’s true that the dems are heading for defeat, would that mean the messaging continues to fail, or that many voters are reactionaries willing to vote against what they supposedly believe in (like energy reform)? It seems that most people are rarely reminded of the seriousness of the issues before this nation and the world. When is the last time you saw a solid, unambiguous story about accelerated climate change in the mainstream media? As much as I hate that the majority of Americans don’t read climate blogs, it’s reality. We see great responses to flawed media commentary here, but how often do they reach much of the original audience? If people are willing to vote out the dems and not the obstructionists, doesn’t that suggest they’re woefully uninformed, or unable to look beyond their immediate expectations, to avoid making things worse for them and their descendants?

  16. Tim says:

    Joe, your blog is first rate when it comes to finding great information about global warming…and you’re probably right about the climate being the issue on which future generations will judge the current generation in power. But as a purely political matter (I don’t think health care is a trivial issue either), the reason that the Democrats will take a beating in November is that whether the issue is climate change or health care, Obama really doesn’t seem to have understood his opponents at all. He wasted time talking with a political party that has basically gone insane and he has denigrated the people who put him office in the vain hope for some illusory dream of bipartisanship. Had Democrats pushed through something approximating real health care – with a strong public option, they would have had a club with which they could beat the GOP over the head for fifty years – just as progressives have done with social security, civil rights, child labor laws, and on and on. What was required is that he pick out someone like Joe Lieberman early and tell him the core issues on which he must absolutely vote with Obama – and the first time he stepped over the line on one of those core issues, he should have stripped him of all his committee chairmanships and figuratively put his head on a spike on the White House lawn. The rest of the blue dogs would have fallen in line on those core issues and a couple Maine Republicans could probably have been told their state was getting nothing unless they caved on some key issues as well. And if Harry Reid wasn’t up to enforcoing that, then Obama should have supported someone who was up to the job. In short, someone needed to sit Obama and the congressional leadership down and read LBJ’s biography to them.

    The problem with the Democratic party is that all they now offer their base is the lame appeal to the lowest. least motivating of possible campaign appeals: we’re not as bad as the GOP. It makes them look weak because they are weak. When will these idiots learn that though the people of this country may not all be terribly bright, they will not follow a party that is weak. It’s no wonder that liberals are completely dispirited.

  17. Rob Honeycutt says:

    Joe… Yeah, I caught myself after I posted that but neglected to follow up. (Holiday weekend, you know.)

    In my eternal optimism I’m hoping that liberals will be a little more engaged than the polls are suggesting and we’ll manage to hold both houses. Rasmussen’s numbers tend to weigh heavily on a likely voter model that Nate Silver has talked about a number of times (though I’m not sure how Silver weights Rasmussen in his figures). I’m hoping that liberals concerns over the craziness of the right wing will win the day that Tuesday.

    [JR:’s analysis is grim. I’ll wait for Silver to do my post, but smart money now says Rs take House. Two months is a long time, tho….]

  18. Peter Bellin says:

    The key to the election is probably the economy. The recession has been worse, perhaps, than President Obabma expected. (Perhaps his choice of financial advisors had something to do with this.) I do not understand why disaffected citizens feel that the response to dissatisfaction with the ‘country’s direction’ is to vote Republican. The mainstream media promotes the idea of a two party system, but the current Republican party has drifted far to the right.

    From my viewpoint, climate change should have been the first issue to be tackled, but I have excellent health care and good health.

    One key is to get people to vote. I do not understand those citizens who do not vote. I believe I have voted in every election, including primaries, for the past twenty years. If the eligible voter more closely resembled the likely voter (or vice verse), the outcome this November might be different.

    Obama seems to have started campaigning on jobs, which makes sense. He should continue to drive home the message that the Federal Government will be the best source of jobs in the near term, and the Republican Party has misused the filibuster to block effective action.

  19. Jim Groom says:

    In politics two months is an eternity. Right now it does not look good for the Democratic Party, which begs the question ‘what is the alternative?’ The GOP is a mess with no apparent leadership. Having said that, what the public is willing to do to themselves is never a surprise. A diet of fear, confusion and total lies has been force feed via the media (all kinds)to Mr and Mrs America for years and particulary since Obama was elected. The masses want to blame somebody and the Demos are convenient no matter the consequences. If you think the congress is broken now, wait until the GOP gains more seats. Many of the polls look like a possible GOP gain of the house, but the majority will remain Democratic. Filibuster…must go.

  20. Mary says:

    Agree with Tim @16.

    I was of the opinion before the 2008 election that if the Dems could get a strong, credible healthcare option (single payer or medicare for all), it would be much easier to rally people to support an strong energy bill because it would have provide proof that Government could do something for ordinary Americans. Instead, we got a bill that doesn’t do much yet and sure seemed to work better for corporations over people, and with a Republican takeover could be overturned, resulting in another convincing round of Government can’t be trusted.

    Seems to me that at least we could have had the Dems go down trying to save the planet even if they couldn’t help the vast majority of Americans. Instead we got way too little too late.

    But we sure do have the best government money can buy.

  21. knoxkp says:

    I’m glad I come over here – the information’s reliable, most of the comments are reasonably sane. Running insane people against unpopular dems is not going to work well for the republicans – The dems may be be bruised after the mid-terms but they’ll still hold both the Senate and the House and maybe they’ll get the gumption to try enactiong actual progressive policy – that’s probably too much to ask but I’m hoping.

  22. Lewis C says:

    Peter at 6 –

    “- there will be no new energy policy or curbs in Greenhouse emissions for at least the next 6-10 years.”

    It seems you’re letting frustration run away with your common sense.

    In reality what happens next week cannot be forecast, let alone in 2016.
    There are plenty of scenarios for the transformation of the present stasis, such as,

    a/. Obama manages to retrieve his pair from his wife’s handbag and decides he really doesn’t want to go down in history as the president who committed America to having lead responsibility for the greatest genocide by serial famines that the world will ever see. He thus dumps the inherited Bush-era policy of a brinkmanship of inaction with China in favour of opening actual negotiations.

    b/. Hurricane Zebidee makes landfall as a Cat 5 and pauses just offshore for long enough to erase Miami from the map. FEMA, having been purged, reconstituted and retrained, takes the lead in co-ordinating a nationwide voluntary assistance effort for the evacuees, under Whitehouse oversight. The Conservative wing of the GOP seizes its chance to debunk and disown the deniers and eject their hijack of the party. A bipartisan CA&T bill is drafted as a matter of national priority.

    c/. Obama loses an unfortunate argument with a bus, and is buried with full pomp. Biden, having no time for Bush’s foreign policy on climate, dumps it, and launches a series of actions, including :-
    publicly exposing the deniers corruption, firing Emanuel, launching a climate education program, instigating filibuster reform, and formally declaring climate destabilization to be “A real and present danger to the security of the nation”, thereby transforming his powers on the issue.

    There are any number of such scenarios for radical change – not least it being America’s turn next year to lose one third of its grain harvest to unprecedented drought. None are predictable, but the stakes are now so high that the unexpected has that much more impact.

    Regarding those stakes, it should be noted that two nuclear powers faced unprecedentedly severe impacts from the same weather event this summer. Of these, the larger has promptly come out strongly for action on climate, and the smaller faces a major boost to its insurgents’ recruitment due to its perceived indifference to flood victims’ suffering, and to a million young mens’ need of a basic wage. The issue of climate is thus an active strategic threat, and no longer a potential one. This and other pressures for reviewing US climate policy are now greater than they’ve ever been.

    Neither shallow optimism nor deep pessimism can serve us well these days – we have to maintain all the pressure we can and, above all, make sure we don’t demoralize others whose help may be just that critical make-weight that is needed.

    With regard to handling frustration, I can well recommend splitting large logs for a woodstove. Daily.



  23. Peter says:

    Lewis- #22- as long as the GOP controls congress (as is likely the next 2 years) nothing is going to be accomplished.

    In 2012- the American people seeing that the GOP stands for nothing- and we begin to experience multiple events as you have described in the American heartland resembling the Russian meltdown, or tropical cyclones hitting the northeast, floods, fires, crop failures – the Democrats could conceivably take back congress or narrow the GOP majority.

    Nonetheless- it seems that the next 2 years are lost- most action will be taken by the EPA- and the states to reduce carbon. I know here in New England we have the ‘New England Climate coalition’ which has been fairly effective. But of course we need a national response for a change in energy policy and CO2.

    We should pass 400ppmv IN 2015- what happens next is anyone’s guess- those infamous feedback’s so described by Hansen will they become more apparent??

    Politics as usual and the powerful special interest monies will continue dictate the direction we go. So it seems that perhaps the decade will not be lost- the Democrats- at least should hopefully ‘expunge’ many ‘Blue Dogs’ this year- setting up a party more ‘Green’ in the future. How large a majority they become in the future will determine what can be passed legislatively.

    The Democrats could also lose control of the Senate this year- making it all the more difficult to pass ‘Real ‘green’ reforms.

  24. PurpleOzone says:

    People’s votes will depend on whether they have a sick feeling in their gut about the economy or their economic welfare. If the economy picks up some, they may decide to stick with the present bunch. If it isn’t in the next few weeks or gets worse, they won’t.

  25. Barry says:

    In my mind the biggest problem with going with Healthcare first is that they didn’t pass a bill that fixed the problem…or that the public could understand.

    No public option emerged despite it being the center of healthcare in the rest of the entire civilized world. Instead they spent all their capital to buy a very complicated pork sausage mess.

    Team Obama burned their capital on a muddle.

    When they turned to energy and climate they had no capital left. They’ve spent the time since then battling to explain a half measure of confusion that is way to complicated to defend against sound bite attacks.

  26. SteveL says:

    What Lou Grinzo said.

    Brooks’ suggestion that Obama would have faced less fanatical opposition pushing CO2-restricting energy legislation, as compared to a CBO-certified revenue neutral no-public-option healthcare bill, is absurd.

  27. DBX says:

    Exactly where was Obama ever supposed to get the votes in this Congress on an energy and climate change bill? Wasn’t gonna happen, not even with Byrd’s switch on the issue in his final couple of years. And the Republicans are as fanatical and deranged about climate change as they are about health care. The difference is that the Democrats are less united on climate change than they are on health care. When it comes to climate change and energy, you tell a Republican that white is white, and they’ll say it’s black. You tell a Democrat that white’s white, and they’ll ask, are you sure we have the votes to say so? At least on health care, even the most conservative Democrats agreed something major had to be done.

  28. Mitch says:


    Your whole premise depends on Obama getting an effective energy/climate change bill passed. If the result was equal to the health care result (marginal improvement with massive new money flowing to the insurance companies) I don’t think the outcome would have been as rosy as you think.

    A lot of the money probably would have gone to fund more Nuclear Power and “Clean” Coal.