Thursday, July 7, 2011

David Brooks: the voice of sanity

Here's an excellent column from New York Times columnist David Brooks. If only more Republican politicians thought like Brooks does.

The Mother of All No-Brainers

By David Brooks

Published: July 4, 2011

The Republicans have changed American politics since they took control of the House of Representatives. They have put spending restraint and debt reduction at the top of the national agenda. They have sparked a discussion on entitlement reform. They have turned a bill to raise the debt limit into an opportunity to put the U.S. on a stable fiscal course.

Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.

Moreover, many important Democrats are open to a truly large budget deal. President Obama has a strong incentive to reach a deal so he can campaign in 2012 as a moderate. The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has talked about supporting a debt reduction measure of $3 trillion or even $4 trillion if the Republicans meet him part way. There are Democrats in the White House and elsewhere who would be willing to accept Medicare cuts if the Republicans would be willing to increase revenues.

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.



  1. Great article. Can't believe that even with an awful (please admit: history will reveal he is just really, really bad) President like Obama and everything else that's happened over the past two years, the best Republicans can do is Palin, Perry and stuff like this. And yet, I'm not surprised. Blech.

  2. We might have to agree to disagree about Obama, Lesli. His first term isn't yet over, so it's difficult to say what history will say about his presidency. And while my displeasure with Obama has been gradually increasing since he took office, I think that many who judge him negatively do so unfairly and ignore his considerable accomplishments so far. (Of course, some of them judge him negatively because of his accomplishments.) I will admit this: I doubt that he will go down in history as a great president.

    As for the Republican Party, they either need to find more moderate candidates or find a way to make the views of their more conservative members mainstream. They've made progress on the latter. It's unfortunate that relatively moderate candidates like Pawlenty, Romney, and Huntsman apparently believe that they have to sell their souls (like I believe McCain did) to get the nomination, because I think they have a much better chance of beating Obama than people like Bachmann and Gingrich and Palin.

    I also believe that, all else being equal, more moderate candidates are better at governing than more extreme candidates. Since the Republican Party has been moving even further to the right recently, it is therefore more difficult to recruit high-quality Republicans to run for elected office. So I agree with you about the politicians seeking the Republican nomination for president.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. I agree with everything in paragraph two and three. :)

    FWIW, I think the military stuff like the repeal of DADT, the recent decision the WH administration made to express condolences to families of servicemembers who took their own lives and the decisions to continue on what most of what Bush started, etc, are all notably good accomplishments on Obama's part. But, his first term is pretty darn well near over (it seems he's done governing and has moved on to campaigning.!/LesliHannah/status/83065642533662720 )and everything else has gone to crap; the numbers, none of them, cannot and do not lie.

  4. You're obviously more even-handed in your assessment of Obama than a lot of conservative bloggers out there.

    I would argue that Obama hasn't governed enough since the inauguration. One reason I voted for him was his commitment to the idea that people could disagree without being disagreeable. But perhaps he thinks that that idea commits him to a kind of hyper-bipartisanship. For example, if memory serves, he unilaterally decided to freeze pay for government workers (something Republicans would have ordinarily endorsed) without bargaining for anything in return. And he seems to think that everything is potentially on the table, which is just to say that he too quickly abandons progressive goals and principles, i.e., he gives in too quickly and too easily to the extremists that David Brooks is complaining about. This makes him seem weak as a leader and, I would argue, less effective as a governor. Bringing an end to the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 was the right thing to do, and he should have pushed harder for it. Everything does seem to be going to crap, but I would argue that it's going to crap because Obama and the Democrats have conceded too much and haven't been progressive enough. You and I would disagree about that, I'm sure.

    And you're right about the numbers (i.e., the jobs report that just came out). They're going in the wrong direction now, and that really has me irked.

    On the other hand, I would need to see an argument that a president can't both campaign and govern. It's in the interest of someone who is campaigning to govern effectively, right? But that is an interesting and possibly telling stat you mention. And the source (CBS News) is reliable (though, interestingly, I'm having trouble finding the story at CBS News's website). Still, if a president can both campaign and govern, then one wonders what's wrong with outpacing Bush. When Republicans were raising more money than Democrats, I didn't complain that Republicans had an unfair advantage; my complaint was that Democrats weren't working hard enough to raise money. Granted, there is way too much money in politics, but we can't expect either party to unilaterally decide to raise less money out of principle, given the current law.


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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson