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David Brooks Needs A Vacation

As someone who (a) admires the intellect of faintly conservative-ish New York Times columnist David Brooks, and (b) is currently on vacation, I'd humbly submit that some R & R may also be in order for Mr. Brooks.  His new column on debt negotiations is lazy, is premised on a series of false assumptions, and -- worst of all -- relies on a string of strawmen that would make Brooks' one-time political crush, Barack Obama, beam with pride.  Brooks has concluded that Republicans are the bad-faith, fanatical actors on the debt ceiling and casts Democrats as the sensible adults in the room.  Brooks' column is so wrongheaded, it practically cries out for a thorough fisking -- so away we go:


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.

Democrats have "agreed not to raise" taxes, but they also insist on "revenue increases."  How would that work, exactly?  Brooks may protest that Democrats say they won't insist on rate hikes, but how does that square with President Obama's vow to raise marginal income tax rates on millions of small businesses and families when the current tax deal expires?  And how does it jibe with the White House's recent proposal to raise taxes by $600 Billion?  Perhaps Mr. Brooks will explain this impressive feat of fiscal and rhetorical magic in his next column.

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.


Stop the presses!  Harry Reid has "talked about" supporting a deal.  Other Democrats "are open to" a big agreement.  Still others, "in the White House and elsewhere," might even be willing to think about some nibble-round-the-edges entitlements cuts.  What, pray tell, does all this amount to in reality?  Absolutely nothing.  Democrats have "talked about" a lot of things over the past few years -- including fiscal restraint and entitlement reform.  Hell, Harry Reid has even occasionally seemed "open to" producing a budget.  But what have they actually done?  They've jammed through a new entitlement program Americans can neither stomach nor afford, passed a wildly ineffective and wasteful "stimulus" package that failed to live up to the promises and projections on which it was sold, and racked up roughly $6 Trillion in new debt.  Harry Reid's caucus has refused to introduce a budget blueprint for nearly 800 days.  Reid even called the prospect of fulfilling this fiduciary responsibility "foolish."  Incidentally: By all means, Mr. President, feel free to try and campaign as a moderate (again).  You may bamboozle a few gullible fanboys, but most independents seem to have caught on to your act.  


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 million dollars of revenue increases...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.

Might I briefly interrupt Brooks' festival of anti-Republican name-calling (say what you will about the man, he's mastered the skill of bestowing leg thrills upon Times readers) to point out a small fact?   This "mother of all no-brainers" deal that Brooks accuses the GOP of turning down doesn't exist.  There is no deal on the table.  Period.   Why on earth should Republicans agree in principle to a theoretical deal before seeing and carefully considering the fine print?  Based on their opposition's track record, they shouldn't, and they aren't.  Good.  Okay, back to the tantrum:

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.  


With all due respect, it is demonstrably false to claim that Republicans "do not accept the logic of compromise."  Did Mr. Brooks sleep through the aforementioned tax deal in December?  Did April's Continuing Resolution accord slip his mind as he penned this column?   In each of these high-profile cases, Republicans helped craft and pass profoundly imperfect compromises, angering many in their base, in order to keep the government running and avert all-out partisan warfare.  Some of us defended both actions as frustrating, but necessary, nods to divided government.  Frankly, David Brooks should still be orgasmic over these triumphs of bipartisan moderation.  Instead, he's deliberately ignoring them to bludgeon Republicans into prematurely supporting a non-existent deal because...well, just because.

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.

Forgive me, but I haven't heard any influential Republican leaders in Congress -- including strident conservatives like Michele Bachmann -- say that a default on the debt wouldn't have "calamitous effects."  Despite their misgivings and overwhelming public opposition, Congressional Republicans actually support raising the debt ceiling because they recognize reality.  Senate Republicans didn't push to cancel this week's recess to help fix a fictional problem.  Brooks' sneering aside, GOP leaders do believe the vaunted "scholars and intellectual authorities," which is why they're at the table in the first place.  But they also agree with Barack Obama: 2006 edition, who voted against raising the debt ceiling, denouncing the act as an ugly manifestation of "a failure of leadership."  That was about $6 Trillion ago.  Republicans have stated that another debt limit hike must be accompanied by meaningful, lasting spending reform and restraint, and should not be exploited as an excuse to raise taxes.  These are reasonable demands; a far cry from the facts-be-damned zealotry Brooks alleges.


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...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. 

Perhaps David Brooks should reserve his lectures on moral decency for the party that has shamelessly accelerated our debt crisis through its reckless spending binge.  Perhaps he might spare us his "honor staining" sanctimony when it's Democrats who've refused to outline their own specific plans to tackle this problem -- while demagoguing the hell out of Republicans' responsible and available-for-public-scrutiny plan.  And perhaps if he's truly interested in scolding a party whose ideological intractability has led it to float fiscally insane proposals, he might consider devoting his coveted column inches to Democrats' second-stimulus-funded-by-tax-increases idea.  Talk about a "sacred fixation."


Republicans would be wise to ignore Brooks' smears and hold the line on taxes.  They have ample reason to do so.  Meanwhile, I renew my call for Mr. Brooks to join me in taking a rejuvenating summer vacation.  Based on his latest offering, it's fairly evident he's already taken an intellectual one.

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