David Brooks on clusters and networks

One of the speakers at the No Labels kickoff was David Brooks, who is well known as a center-right New York Times columnist. His December 9 column (reprinted in today’s Austin American-Statesman) reinforces his centrist credentials. In explaining why the Bush tax cut compromise worked out by President Obama and the congressional Republicans is actually a very good deal for the Democrats—

The White House negotiators did an outstanding job for their side. With little leverage, they got not only the unemployment insurance, but also an Earned Income Tax Credit provision, a college scholarship provision and other Democratic goodies.

—Brooks frames his explanation in terms of clusters and networks:

Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity. Psychologically, they tend to value loyalty and solidarity….

Network liberals share the same goals and emerge from the same movement. But they tend to believe — the nation being as diverse as it is and the Constitution saying what it does — that politics is a complex jockeying of ideas and interests. They believe progress is achieved by leaders savvy enough to build coalitions….

This contrast is not between lefties and moderates. It’s a contrast between different theories of how politics is done. Ted Kennedy was a network liberal, willing to stray from his preferences in negotiation with George W. Bush or John McCain….

You don’t have to abandon your principles to cut a deal. You just have to acknowledge that there are other people in the world and even a president doesn’t get to stamp his foot and have his way.

As Brooks tells the story, Obama campaigned—and won—as a network liberal, but then governed as a cluster liberal, relying on partisan leaders to get things done quickly. “The results were predictable: insularity, alienation and defeat.” Now, according to Brooks, the compromise on the Bush tax cuts shows that “Obama is returning to first principles, re-establishing himself as a network liberal.”

I’m not sure this is entirely accurate—wasn’t the Affordable Care Act the product of countless compromises?  On the other hand, those compromises resulted in exactly zero Republican votes, so they failed to build any coalition. Maybe that’s why all that sausage-making was reviled as more of the same old Washington culture that Obama had pledged to change, which in turn may explain why the voters in the midterms blamed the Democrats more than the Republicans.

We’ll soon see whether the Bush tax cut compromises produce a true coalition, with a significant number of Republican votes. If it does, that will lend credence to Brooks’s theory that network liberalism and network conservatism are back in style.

About Hamilton Richards

He retired in 2006 as a Senior Lecturer in Computer Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. These days he volunteers technical support for Citizens' Climate Lobby (Austin chapter), Common Ground for Texans, (CG4Tx.org), Integrity Texas (IntegrityTexas.org), Austin Rowing Club, and several friends.
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