ideas I had. They were destroying families, creating a lot more crime, helping drug cultures, so — unintentionally — they were making things worse. TP On the subject of your policereporting career, what do you make of the current crime in Chicago? Can you think of a solution? DB Their current crime is different than the crime I was covering. When I was a police reporter in Chicago, crime was pervasive. Crime was random. It was just people shooting each other. Now it’s just very localized; it’s warfare between gangs. Machiavelli would tell you, “Just tell the gangs to cut a deal. Don’t try and solve the problem. Just get them to cut a deal so they stop killing each other.” TP When you first met President Obama, you said (a) he’s going to be president and (b) he’s going to be a very good president. DB One out of two, not bad, right?! [Laughter] TP How has he changed from when you first met him and why is he not a “very good president”? DB He could be a lot worse. There are two things I underestimated. One, he’s a lot more liberal than I thought he was, and I would say he’s a lot more liberal than he thinks he is. He’s always lived his life in a very center-left atmosphere, and he looks at the people around him and says, “Well, I’m not as liberal as those guys, so therefore I’m moderate.” He has much more faith in technocratic planning than I thought, and he’s much more aloof from business than I thought. That has been disillusioning. The second thing, though this is not his fault, is that his style of governing is based on discussion and deliberation, which is just not possible in this day and age. From the first time he ran, or from when I knew him in the Senate, to now when I speak to him, he’s a much tougher bastard. The times are tougher, so he reacts. He thinks, “How am I going to be effective in a very polarized country?” TP In your Jan. 28 column, you 14
called for a new wing of the Republican Party, one that “would be filled with people who recoiled at President Obama’s second Inaugural Address because of its excessive faith in centralized power, but who don’t share the absolute antigovernment story of the current GOP.” How would you propose building this second GOP? DB You have to start by asking, “What are the problems?” I don’t believe you can build a party by looking at voters. Then it’s just like marketing. You’re not going to get the substance. The way I put it in that column was the Charles Murray problem of widening inequality and the Mancur Olson problem of stagnation. I’d combine a very aggressive human capital education reform, training, early childhood education, and social mobility agenda with a pretty aggressive entitlement reform agenda. That’s the little stuff that appeals to Democrats — the human capital — and the entitlements also appeal to Republicans. You just jam ’em in together. I think that would appeal to people in California, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania. I mentioned Edmund Burke before and that’s part of my conservatism, but I’m an American, and so was Alexander Hamilton who was all about social mobility. I think that’s the right agenda which the current Republican Party can’t do because they don’t believe in government at all, and the Democrats can’t reform the welfare state because all their interest groups believe in it. That’s the vacuum. TP When you came to teach at Yale this semester, you joined a faculty that is often best known for its conservative professors — John Gaddis, Charles Hill, Donald Kagan — yet the student body is overwhelmingly liberal; according to a poll conducted by The Politic, roughly four out of five Yale students identify as liberal. What do you make of this dichotomy? DB Well first, the class isn’t particularly conservative unless you count our views on Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. When I went to school I wasn’t aware of politics because I spent my entire life in the third century B.C. We were pretty divorced, and so far the course
is divorced from politics in the modern sense. But secondly, I’ve taught here before, and the last time I taught I was very reticent about talking about my own politics. I decided that was a mistake because it’s possible to go through an Ivy League school and never meet a conservative professor. My view is that if people are curious, I want to show them what one looks like and why I believe what I do. If anybody asks, I am happy to talk about it. TP We live in an age where a lot of people look to the media not for information, but for affirmation. Do you, as a moderate, see your role as one of persuasion? DB I actually do. This is controversial. I have friends who are at The Wall Street Journal and The [New York] Times who say, “You’re crazy. No one is ever persuaded by columns. What you should do is fire up people who you believe in and give them arguments that they need to go forward.” I guess I can see that point of view, but I happen to be in this weird, uncomfortable position where I’m not really on either team. So I believe in persuasion. I’m not sure I persuade anybody, but hopefully I prompt thinking. I recently read a good phrase: “A writer’s job is to provide a context in which other people can think.” People are not going to read a column and say, “Oh, he’s right. I’ll believe what he believes.” But it might provoke a thought of their own. The job is to shake people up and provoke something.
They’re off the record, but you get a sense of what he’s thinking. TP Who do you think today’s politician reads? DB They do not read. They’re too busy. They’ll read some historical biographies. Some senators have some more time, but most politicians will not. They are just getting dumber and dumber. Obama had time when he was a senator or state senator — God knows he had plenty of time — but now he reads reasonably few books. They get more and more exhausted as time goes on. And when they read a column like mine, it’s not so much for information; they just want to know if I am on their side, to know if I am helping or hurting. It’s not for intellectual stimulation. They’re too busy. TP Fifty years, 100 years from now, how do you think we will judge
Obama’s first term? DB Well, tell me how health care works. If it works, he’ll be up there with Roosevelt and Johnson as a big domestic policy innovator. I still think that the debt will be looked back upon as a big problem that was punted, not only by him, but by Bush before. I think that will be seen as a missed opportunity. Without doubt, he’ll get credit for ameliorating the recession. You know I don’t agree with all the stimulus package, but they did a pretty good job with the banks. They’ll get credit for doing a good job. TP If you were elected president, and you had one act, could solve one problem, or write one bill, what would it be?
single policy that gives the biggest bang for the buck. TP Best guess, who’s going to be elected president in 2016? DB I already screwed up my call in this year’s Super Bowl, but you have to think it will be Hillary. I think she’ll run, and I think the Republican Party is in deep doo-doo. [Marco] Rubio, if I had to guess, will be the Republican nominee, and he’d be pretty strong. But she’s quite impressive, and the Democratic coalition will just be bigger, so I don’t think the Republicans are going to fix their problems in the near term. P
DB Early education. I would fix Head Start and make universal preschool available to everybody — quality universal preschool. I think that’s the
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TP The White House used to call columnists such as yourself and ask “Is it going to be a good day or a bad day?” Do they still do that now that the president was re-elected? DB They used to care about me. And then during election time, they cared about TV. Now they’re back to caring about me because the only people who pay attention are political junkies who read columns. I get reasonably constant contact with somebody in the White House, and they’ll call in columnists. We’ll go in in groups of six or seven to meet with Obama for 90 minutes. In the last two months, it’s probably been one a month with him. 15
Published on Jun 2, 2013