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David Brooks Apologizes For Obama Sequester Plan Muff, Is Sick Of 'Stale' Debates

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DAVID BROOKS APOLOGIZES
AP

Well, here's one for David Brooks' class on humility. In his most recent piece, the New York Times columnist moves a bit beyond his previous "I made this mistake because I am so frustrated with the discourse" correction, appended to the column in which he claimed that President Barack Obama did not have a plan to replace the coming sequester, and this time just admits that he sort of muffed it:

In Friday's column, I wrote that the Obama administration has no plan to avoid the sequester save raising taxes on the rich. That was unfair. The White House approach is not what I would like, but it is more balanced than I described.

Humiliation is a good teacher. So, I've been trying to think through my dissatisfaction -- and clarify what I think the administration should do.

And so he does. For Brooks' hoped-for prescriptives, I encourage people to just go read the whole thing, but in summation, Brooks favors redirecting monies that are now going to the affluent elderly in the form of earned benefit programs and reinvesting those funds in "the future" -- more specifically, "early education, community colleges, research and infrastructure projects." He is also in favor of some substantial tax reform -- a value-added tax figures prominently, as do cutting corporate tax rates and replacing the earned-income tax credit with "payroll tax relief and debit cards." Finally, he'd like the president to engage in a conversation about "family structure and social repair," for the sake of ending income disparities.

The merits of these ideas are, I suppose, debatable. But if I had to try to convince Brooks to drop anything, it would be his continuing notion that the president still have some sort of magic arrow in his "leadership" quiver that he's refusing to shoot into the dark heart of institutional dysfunction. There is this notion, particularly afflicting Times columnists, that President Obama could bring all of the Beltway's intractability to a halt if he'd only manifest a sentimentality that's so profound that it softens the hearts of his opposition and brings some sort of profound invigoration to the debate. To Brooks' mind, Obama has "fallen into" the "liberal Reagan" mode, in which he makes "gestures toward balance but doesn't really crusade for anything that fundamentally challenges his electoral coalition."

Per Brooks:

The problem is that this approach locks us into the same debate framework we've been stuck in since 1980, which has produced so much gridlock. If politics is framed in this way, then the country divides and policy stagnates. We will keep having these endless budget squabbles. The dysfunction will metastasize.

My main complaint with Obama is that he promised to move us beyond these stale debates, but he's, instead, become a participant in them.

In the first place, it's important to understand that when Brooks talks about improving "stale debates," he's not referring to advancing a fresh idea based on policy merits. He simply thinks that any policy that forces some sort of shock to established political orthodoxies is intrinsically good, regardless of whether its impact on the real world of human Americans is a positive outcome or not. (One of the hardest things to explain to Beltway pundits is that "policies that gain bipartisan support" and "policies that provide good outcomes to Americans" are often mutually exclusive concepts.)

With that in mind, however, I'm not sure it's accurate to say that Obama hasn't pushed for things that "fundamentally challenge his electoral coalition." For example, I am looking at that sheet that lays out Obama's plan to replace the sequester, and staring right back at me is his proposal to reduce the deficit by $130 billion through chained CPI (which the White House is calling "Superlative CPI," a name change designed to "crusade" on its supposed "superlativeness"). Chained CPI is definitely something that "fundamentally challenges his electoral coalition." If you don't believe me, you can ask them. (I have similar misgivings about chained CPI as a policy, but in terms of convincing Democratic lawmakers to go along with it, it's very "gettable" for Obama.)

But more broadly, as I've said before, I think that we can all agree that promising to "change the tone in Washington" or "move us beyond these state debates" are dumb promises to make, because they require some buy-in from the other participants in the debate. And in this case, Obama's not getting buy-in, despite the fact that the bulk of what he's seeking to do is make cuts to earned benefit programs and enact the same sort of loophole-closing tax reform that was, very recently, the GOP's electoral-season cause.

So what's happening to the debate? I'm still seeing pieces in which people -- most recently, Matt Yglesias -- wonder why the Republicans won't "take yes for an answer." And these contemplations are of an old vintage. As Yglesias points out, we all had cause to wonder the same thing back during Ye Olde Grand Bargain days:

If you think back to the failed grand bargain talks, Obama was offering a bigger spending cut than House Republicans were proposing, but the GOP preferred an equilibrium with higher spending and lower taxes to one with lower spending and higher taxes. That's a sensible preference ranking for a movement that's deeply invested in Old Keynesian ideas about countercyclical fiscal policy, but it wasn't Paul Krugman who rejected the Obama austerity package -- it was John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

Meanwhile, what happened to the GOP fervor for revenue-neutral tax reform achieved through loophole closing? That's honestly the biggest mystery in this whole sequester debate, but if you ask me, I think Jonathan Chait has Sherlocked it:

The answer to this piece of the mystery is clear enough: Republicans in Congress never actually wanted to raise revenue by tax reform. The temporary support for tax reform was just a hand-wavy way of deflecting Obama's popular campaign plan to expire the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Conservative economists in academia may care about the distinction between marginal tax rates and effective tax rates. But Republicans in Congress just want rich people to pay less, period. I can state this rule confidently because there is literally not a single example since 1990 of any meaningful bloc of Republicans defying it.

So what's driving the "staleness" in the debate? It's the GOP's increasingly paradoxical intransigence -- not President Obama, whom Brooks has essentially cast in a very strange role: Obama has to manifest "leadership" in order to help GOP lawmakers understand how much his proposals advance their overall cause and bequeath them a huge helping of the entitlement cuts and deficit reduction they all publicly profess to want. Past Republican majorities would have simply taken this deal and spiked the football in the end zone.

"My dream Obama wouldn't be just one gladiator in the zero-sum budget wars," writes Brooks. But Obama's the only one trying to cancel that zero-sum war!

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