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Is David Brooks Punking Me?

So yesterday I posted an item complaining about the line of argument that attributes Tuesday's election results to the fact that Democrats had strayed too far from the center, had done too much to quickly, were expanding government too far, etc., etc. I argued that it was much more plausible that voters--particularly the independent voters who decide elections--were just pissed off about the economy. To believe the former, you'd have to believe that these voters have well worked-out views about the proper size of government, and that they're supremely self-aware about where they stand on the ideological spectrum, and where politicians stand relative to them at any given moment, which strikes me as a bit implausible.

Alas, today David Brooks basically takes the too-far-from-the-center argument and runs with it. It's as though he read my post and tried to construct a column that came to the precise opposite conclusion on every point. (Though, as long as we're on the subject of implausibility, let me point out that that's fantastically implausible.)

Brooks and I agree that Democrats took a real drubbing among independents Tuesday. (It would be hard to disagree--the numbers are the numbers.) And we both agree that the economy was a major factor. As Brooks reports:

Middle-class suburban voters who have been trending Democratic for a decade suddenly lurched out of the Democratic camp — and are now in play.

Why? What do these voters want?

The first thing to say is that this recession has hit the new suburbs hardest, exactly where independents are likely to live. According to a survey by the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, 76 percent of suburbanites say they or someone they know have lost a job in the past year.

But whereas I think you can basically stop there--the recession hit independents hard, and so they're pissed about it--Brooks goes on to construct an intricate theory about the worldviews of these political creatures:

Democrats did poorly in elections on Tuesday partly because of disappointed liberals who think that President Obama is moving too slowly, but mostly because of anxious suburban independents who think he is moving too fast. ...

According to that same survey, only 31 percent of Americans believe that the president and Congress “should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits.” Sixty-two percent, twice as many, believe the president and Congress “should worry more about keeping the deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.”

These shifts have not occurred because conservatives and liberals have changed their minds. They haven’t. The shift is among independents.

According to Gallup, the share of independents who describe their views as conservative has moved from 29 percent last year to 35 percent today. The share of independents who believe there is too much government regulation of business has jumped from 38 percent to 50 percent.

This all sounds pretty plausible: Independents are saying they're worried about the deficit, that they've become more conservative, and that the government is too intrusive. Who am I to say they're lying.

Problem is, voters almost always say stuff like this when the economy gets worse under a Democrat, and they stop saying it when the economy gets better. Again, I'd direct you to John Judis's recent piece about presidential disapproval ratings and the unemployment rate, which almost perfectly track one another. My guess is that all of the numbers Brooks is citing are basically reflecting the same thing, which is that independent voters don't think Obama's policies are fixing the economy. If that's the conclusion you start with, then it makes sense to answer pollsters' questions with skepticism toward Obama's agenda (too costly, too liberal, to intrusive). But the good news for Obama is that he almost certainly doesn't have to address these specific complaints. He just needs a little help from the labor market. (Conversely, if the labor market doesn't improve, then addressing these complaints isn't going to help him a hell of a lot.)