I'm not going to like this post. I'll reflect on it and wonder how I wrote it. I'll wonder if I was lacking oxygen to the brain or if the residual effects for DC Brau's Ghouls Night Out carried over into the day after drinking it.
Guys, David Brooks wrote a column that makes sense. Please pick your jaws from up off the floor. I still have a couple bones to pick, but on the whole I like what I read. Mr. Brooks wants a "dream Obama" who would end the endless back and forth of the size of government and the individual versus the collective. Instead, Mr. Brooks would like this dream Obama to get past size and speak plainly that in 2013, the government isn't going away, and that the size of the government isn't nearly as important as the intelligence of the government.
Brooks wants his dream Obama to advocate to change the benefits regime of wealthy, elderly people and transfer those savings to the youth of America in a variety of existing programs that could use the resources. He wants dream Obama to institute a value-added tax and use the revenue to make a $100,000 income tax exemption and lower corporate tax rates. Mr. Brooks acknowledges doing any and all of this is a big political lift, but he believes "only the president can fundamentally shift the terms" of the debate. There is much to like, but there are some questions outstanding.
First, there are no numbers here and while initial reaction from more liberal minded folks hasn't been to pillory Mr. Brooks, I would be curious how the numbers play out in reality if you made this sort of fundamental change in tax policy in an abbreviated timeline.
Second, we face an environment where a healthy portion see almost no legitimate role for the federal government or nearly any government. Part of the reason Obama's second inaugural and the most recent state of the union speech focused so much on the value of government and the shared experience of a collective is because, honestly, that's no longer a settled question in the United States. Beyond debating the size of government, there are questions being raised about its fundamental role. Many of these questions had a broad consensus on both sides for decades. So, in part, Obama has to make this case because it's not a settled case anymore.
Third, I think Brooks overstates the ability of the president to change the terms of the debate. There was, perhaps, a time that was true, but it's not anymore. I'd cite this article about Tea Party glee over the seemingly imminent sequester. There is a happy tone that Congress would almost indiscriminately cut the budgets of departments and that doesn't allow the apartments to shift money around to make the cuts less dire for essential services. (And please don't tell me that BS about how it's just 3% of the federal budget, first off that's a substantial chunk to cut after budgets have been set, second, in actuality, it's ranges from 5.3% to 7.8% just in FY2013 to the affected agencies which is draconian considering budgeted priorities.) Furthermore those reveling in the sequester are already threatening colleagues who might want to strike a deal along the lines the White House has pushed for. Consider this quote from the article:
Barney Keller, communications director for the conservative Club for Growth, said Republicans who don’t support big budget cuts might face primary challenges next year.
“Many Republicans aren’t afraid of losing their job to a Democrat, because of redistricting” that virtually guarantees that GOP lawmakers will hold on to their seats, he said. “But they are afraid of losing their jobs to more fiscally conservative candidates.”
Redistricting and the primary system in this country is a double whammy undermining most any hopes of comity in Congress and greatly diminishing the president's ability to change the terms of the debate. I mean, you have very protected districts that aren't competitive in the general elections, just the primaries, so you have elected representatives captive to the base of their party. In that dynamic, what does it matter if the president tries to change the terms of the conversation? Doing so doesn't imperil that elected representative because his or her primary voters drive the results in the district, not the broader national, or even district mood.
I'm afraid Mr. Brooks will have to remain dreaming about his Obama and the policies and debate he would like that dream Obama to engage in. I think, substantively, Mr. Brooks is on to something but the well of our politics is poisoned and it can't be helped by progress in national polls. It can only be helped by a fundamental rethink of our electoral process.