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Brooks's Wishful Thinking

 There has been some discussion of David Brooks's turn today as a weirdly downbeat McCain apologist. The gist of it: Yes, McCain has run a terrible, unserious, possibly even dishonorable campaign, but he'd still make a great, serious, highly honorable president. 

I suppose so. But I'm hardly optimistic, especially since Brooks bases his argument on the long-standing political truism of: Well, everybody these days has to do terrible things to win the presidency, but then they can go back to being the swell person they are deep down.

Regardless of how it applies to McCain, I find this entire line of argument unconvincing. Sure the pressures and political vagaries of the campaign trail are tough, but why exactly should we expect a fundamentally bad candidate to wind up being a fundamentally good president? It's not as though the pressure--political or otherwise--on a candidate decreases once he's in the Oval Office. And nothing we've seen in recent years suggests such a transformation is likely. George W. Bush didn't run a rough campaign in 2000 only to pivot back to his genial, bipartisan, compassionate-conservative roots once in office. If anything, W. was more partisan, arrogant, intransigent, and isolated after he assumed power than when he was still seeking it. Similarly, Bill Clinton was a slick-talking triangular on the trail and a slick-talking triangulator in office. (And his sexual habits certainly didn't improve after he became king of the world.) 

Now, granted, presidential contenders often must perform elaborate two-steps on questions of policy in order to win first a primary and then a general election. (You know the drill: Suck up to the fringe, then move toward the center.) But Brooks isn't simply looking to excuse minor, or even major, policy shifts by McCain. Rather, he is straining to dismiss basic warning flags about McCain's core leadership abilities, emotionalism, honesty, and seriousness--that "dismaying temperament" George Will finds so troubling. Brooks is asking us to buy into the notion that presidential campaigns warp the very essence of the man--but only until Inauguration Day, at which point a candidate's sanity returns.

Sorry. It's a lovely theory, but that's not the kind of change I believe in.

--Michelle Cottle