After a several month hiatus, September heralds the return of The Conversation, The New York Times debate series featuring regular columnists David Brooks and Gail Collins. While the banter is often playful, the ideological divisions of the two pundits are serious and stark. Brooks represents what he thinks is the moderate, humanist right (another column for another time), while Collins takes up the mantle of the frustrated left.
The liberal grievances that Collins bespeaks in deceptively simple, pointed prose are sundry and do not always land at the feet of the intractable, regressive GOP. Collins’ voice has been notable in her willingness to take on cowering Democratic leadership, challenging them to stand for common-sense legislation around issues such as gun reform, immigration, health care and women’s rights. She doesn’t let either party off the hook for our nation’s stagnant and conflicted approach to social and economic progress. And she does so in approachable language that’s as clearheaded as it is egalitarian. Take this gem from Collin’s 2009 book, America’s Women:
“The history of American women is about the fight for freedom, but it’s less a war against oppressive men than a struggle to straighten out the perpetually mixed message about women’s role that was accepted by almost everybody of both genders.”
Collins dares all Americans to take a certain level of responsibility for our situation. If we don’t like the way things work, we are at least partly complicit in tolerating the status quo. And this week, she holds our feet to the fire once again in her latest Conversation with Brooks, “Our Reluctant National Security President.” After the conservative Brooks offers yet another rote, uninspired argument against America’s “leadership problem” under President Obama (to be fair, he lumps W and Clinton in this bucket as well), Collins succinctly destroys it. She writes:
“You’re looking at a decline of presidential leadership since World War II. I see a western world that has learned painfully, over and over again, how impossible it is to fight a ground war in other people’s countries. Particularly on a planet where your friends aren’t the only ones with weapons of mass destruction.
So maybe it’s not the presidents who have changed, but the world they confront.”
Yes! And the subtext embedded in this truth bomb (bombs are so much more enticing when they come in the form of learned dissent) is an indictment of a democratic leadership that seems determined to remain on the defensive, despite:
- Being, with few exceptions, aligned with the wishes of the voting public (such as nonintervention in foreign conflicts that do not directly and immediately impact our national security).
- Repeatedly failing to learn by case study (health care reform, immigration, the rollback of female reproductive rights) that the softer voices in the room are not heard. Those who talk loudest and most repetitively often win the messaging war.
The Democratic candidates presently running from the record of Obama, which includes significant economic recovery, a solid record in the war on terrorism (all crazy things Summer 2014 aside) and the greatest expansion to the social safety net in a generation, would do well to remember that every time they bob and weave, choosing “centrist” pandering over countermessaging, a soldier of Karl Rove gets his or her wings. And it allows the tone of the conversation to drift ever farther to the right.
Where Brooks views a lack of Presidential machismo as the ludicrous underpinning for our modern inability to order countries around, Collins sees a new reality. One in which America’s role – for financial, humanitarian, and yes geopolitical reasons – must be different. Most Democrats privately agree with this assessment.
One of the most important questions facing the party in the run up to the November elections is “Will we retain a Senate majority?” Instead, it ought to be, “Can we dispense with fear and expediency long enough to talk to voters and show them the real differences that exist between left and right?” The words don’t have to be lofty and long-winded as Collin’s continuous example proves. We need to do more than hold onto the Chamber. We need to change the conversation.