I have vowed, repeatedly, never to read David Brooks again: I have low blood pressure, as it happens, but a person can never be too careful. Still, every few months or so I spot a sentence out of the corner of my eye before I realize it's his, and it's so completely inane that I can't help myself. Today, the sentence in question was this: "In weak moments, I think the best ticket for this country would be Bush-Kerry." With a horrible sinking sensation, I knew that I was going to have to read on.
Fortunately, Brooks did not dwell on the supposed merits of a Bush-Kerry ticket. Instead, he analyzed the debates. I was not surprised that what he said was inane. I was surprised, however, at how entirely false it was. People like Brooks are, as Emerson once said, "not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right."
Brooks' central argument is this:
The atmosphere of Kerry's mind is rationalistic. He thinks about how to get things done. He talks like a manager or an engineer.
The atmosphere of Bush's mind is more creedal or ethical. He talks about moral challenges. He talks about the sort of personal and national character we need in order to triumph over our enemies. His mind is less coldly secular than Kerry's, but also more abstracted from day-to-day reality.
When John Kerry was asked how he would prevent another attack like 9/11, he reeled off a list of nine concrete policy areas, ranging from intelligence reform to training Iraqi troops, but his answer had no thematic summation. If you glance down a transcript of the debate and you see one set of answers that talks about "logistical capacity" or "a plan that I've laid out in four points," or "a long list" of proposals or "a strict series of things" that need to be done, you know that's Kerry speaking.
If, on the other hand, you see an answer that says, "When we give our word, we will keep our word," you know that is Bush. When you see someone talking about crying with a war widow, you know that's Bush.
This argument fits neatly into a Republican narrative about Bush's strengths and Kerry's weaknesses. But it is wrong, both about the debates and about morality. About the debates: I reread the transcripts of the debates to see what evidence there was for some of Brooks' central claims. First, Brooks claims that Kerry focusses more than Bush on how to get things done. This is false: as one would expect in a debate whose questions tended to take the form, 'How would you do X?', both candidates spent a lot of time detailing the steps they would take to achieve various results. Brooks is right when he says that when you see an answer that talks about logistical capacity, it's Kerry's -- Bush never used that exact phrase.But the implication that only Kerry used that sort of technical terminology is false. (Quick: which candidate used the phrase 'the trans-shipment of information and/or weapons of mass destruction materials' in the debate? Hint: not Kerry.) Likewise, only Kerry used the specific phrase 'plan that I've laid out in four points', but Bush used similar phrases (who can forget his 'multi-pronged strategy'?)
More importantly, Brooks says that 'the atmosphere of Bush's mind' is more ethical. I went back and counted* how many clearly ethical claims each candidate made. The results were: Kerry 22, Bush 16. This excludes claims that attribute immoral conduct to another person; when those are included, the results are Kerry 25, Bush 17. As before, Brooks is right to say that if "you see an answer that says, "When we give our word, we will keep our word," you know that is Bush" -- only Bush used those exact words. But Brooks implies that only Bush talks that way, and that is wrong. (Examples of Kerry making similar claims: "I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right." "Those aren't my values." "That is noble. That's the most noble thing that anybody can do. And I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility.") Likewise, while only Bush spoke about crying with a war widow, the implication that only Bush described encounters with specific individuals that carried a serious moral message is false. (Kerry: "You've got to be able to look in the eyes of families and say to those parents, "I tried to do everything in my power to prevent the loss of your son and daughter."" "I've met kids in Ohio, parents in Wisconsin places, Iowa, where they're going out on the Internet to get the state-of-the-art body gear to send to their kids. ... And you go visit some of those kids in the hospitals today who were maimed because they don't have the armament." Etc.)
Brooks also claims that Kerry is "unable to blend his specific proposals into guiding principles", while Bush is "abstracted from day-to-day reality", presumably because he is absorbed in the contemplation of Platonic forms. Again, both claims are false. Bush has plenty of specific proposals to offer; in fact, most of his time in the debate is spent listing them. Kerry, for his part, has a clear set of convictions from which his policy proposals follow. He believes that we should work with other nations to pursue our own security, to ensure the peace and security of the world, and to prevent humanitarian catastrophes like Rwanda and Darfur. To do this, he thinks we need to maintain our credibility and moral leadership. He is prepared to go to war to protect this country, and to do so over the opposition of other countries, but only after all other alternatives have been exhausted; and he thinks we should work to prevent this last resort from being forced on us by strengthening our alliances and preventing various problems from boiling over. David Brooks might disagree with this vision, but it exists, and as presented in the debate it is clearly underwritten by moral principles. Likewise, I disagree with many of Bush's specific policy proposals, but it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that they did not exist.
After going over the transcript, I cannot imagine on what grounds one could say that Bush focusses more on values and ethics than Kerry does. If anything, the opposite is true: Kerry invokes moral principles and moral language more than Bush. However, Bush does pull ahead on two fronts. First, he invokes religion more explicitly than Kerry. Kerry did not mention praying with the individuals he mentioned, and while his heart went out to the people of Florida, Bush's prayers were with them. Second, he spends more time describing the motivation of his enemies than Kerry. Brooks claims that the fact that Kerry said that it was Osama bin Laden who attacked us, and that fighting Saddam Hussein was a distraction, shows that he "defined the enemy in narrow, concrete terms." This is false: Saddam is just as concrete an individual as bin Laden. But while Kerry defines our enemy as "terrorists", and takes it to be obvious why we should try to defeat them, Bush spends time describing them as motivated by "an ideology of hatred", and as frightened by freedom. This is a clear difference, though I do not see what it has to do with Bush's supposedly ethical cast of mind.
Moving on to the views about ethics implicit in Brooks' article: as best I can tell, Brooks thinks of ethics as a realm of lofty profundity entirely detached from what he calls 'day-to-day reality'. A person with an ethical cast of mind makes grand pronouncements, but never bothers to think about what Brooks calls "the task of relating means to ends". Since his core convictions are clear, he has no need to adapt to reality; he can achieve perfect certainty without having to understand anything at all about the world around him.
This is, of course, completely wrong. If you care about morality, then you have to care about actually doing what morality requires of you. If, for instance, you believe that morality requires that you bring freedom to Iraq, then it is not enough to pronounce yourself in favor of that goal and leave its implementation to take care of itself. You have to think as hard as you can about how, exactly, to bring freedom to Iraq, taking account of all the complexities you can discover. A serious concern for morality requires thinking seriously about tactics, and thinking seriously about tactics in turn requires making every effort to understand the world around you, and to figure out what, exactly, you need to do to achieve your objectives. If you do not bother to think about this, this does not show that you have "an ethical cast of mind"; it shows either that you do not take morality seriously enough to ask yourself what it actually involves, or that you are more concerned with being able to tell yourself that you are on the side of the angels than with actually doing what's right. If Bush had offered no concrete details in the debates, then that would not have shown that he was 'really' concerned with values, not day-to-day reality; it would have shown that he was not concerned with either. But since Brooks is wrong about Bush as well, we'll have to figure out what he thinks about ethics on other grounds, like (for instance) his willingness to put out ads ('Global Test') that tell outright lies.
* Note on methodology: counting moral claims inevitably involves judgment. Nonetheless, I had some criteria. First, I counted only moral claims made by the candidate; not claims attributed to others. Second, I counted only claims that were clearly moral, not claims about, for instance, what we "have to" do, which might be moral and might not. (I excluded such claims even when the context made it fairly clear that they were moral, except when what we 'have to' do was itself moral. E.g., a claim like 'we have to succeed in Iraq' wouldn't count' even if it was clear in context that it meant that we cannot withdraw for moral reasons; a claim like 'we have to fight for freedom' or 'we have to be truthful' would count.) Third, I did not count claims that describe events in moral terms rather than stating a moral requirement or principle, e.g. that freedom is on the march, or that we have forfeited the respect of other countries.