Note: this item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on March 3, 2009
David Brooks penned a column for The New York Times today that is destined to become a classic of its type. His editors seem to think so as well, titling his essay: “A Moderate Manifesto.”
Its main thrust is to agree with conservative arguments that the Obama administration’s budget proposal is a radical big-government, class-warfare, tax-and-spend package that would remake the country in a horrifying fashion. Indeed, “moderates” are explicitly called upon by their would-be chieftain to join the Right in opposing the whole thing. But what makes the argument both distinctive and incoherent is Brooks’ concession that the key components of the proposal all make sense:
We [moderates] sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.
So what’s the huge beef? It’s just all too much:
[T]he Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once….
We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.
And with that assertion, Brooks is off to the races, providing a lurid spin on specific Obama proposals that are apparently “unexceptional” in themselves, but are somehow terrifyingly radical when attempted in combination. Consider his treatment of the Obama tax proposals which, as I am sure he knows, are basically designed to restore the structure of federal income tax rates as they existed prior to 2001.
The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide. The president issued a read-my-lips pledge that no new burdens will fall on 95 percent of the American people. All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward.
Then there’s this howler:
The U.S. has always had vibrant neighborhood associations. But in its very first budget, the Obama administration raises the cost of charitable giving. It punishes civic activism and expands state intervention.
Brooks appears to be referring here to a relatively minor Obama tax proposal that would further limit (they are already limited now) the total value of deductions for high earners, a very conventional way to ensure effective progressive rates of taxation. To hear Brooks, this is a direct assault on the Tocquevillian concept of voluntary association.
He doesn’t bother to extend the argument much further than these pathetic examples of Obama’s alleged radicalism, pivoting instead to his trumpet call to “moderates” to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” He does make this observation that pretty much exposes the underlying “thinking” of his position:
[Moderates] will have to take the economic crisis seriously and not use it as a cue to focus on every other problem under the sun. They’re going to have to offer an agenda that inspires confidence by its steadiness rather than shaking confidence with its hyperactivity.
David Brooks is not a stupid man. He knows that progressives aren’t simply “using” the economic crisis to “focus on every other problem under the sun.” They believe, as Brooks sometimes appears to believe, that you cannot separate “the economic crisis” from health care costs, an inefficient and unsustainable energy system, an underperforming education system, or indeed, from a tax code that undermines middle-class work and rewards upper-class wealth. If moving towards universal health care is the best way to restrain uncontrolled health care costs (a huge burden for both the public and private sectors) while mitigating the real-life damage wrought by the
economic crisis, why would you not want to do that? If a retooled energy system does indeed position the United States to dominate a huge and fast-growing global market in alternative energy technologies, does it make any sense to wait on initiatives to achieve that in the pursuit of “moderation?” And if addressing the fundamental causes and dire consequences of poorly regulated financial institutions requires “more government,” what’s the point in insisting on “less government”–the supposed “Hamiltonian” principle Brooks insists Americans cherish–at the risk of producing the same disastrous results?
The “moderation” Brooks is championing seems to represent little more than an instinctive reaction against any coherent plan of action, and a horror of following through with the logic of progressive–and actually, “moderate”–analysis of why the economy has collapsed and what, specifically, needs to be done to revive the country.
In the title of this post, I’ve called Brooks’ essay today “The Ultimate David Brooks Column.” That’s because it epitomizes two key Brooksian vices that have always maddeningly accompanied the virtues of his fluid and interesting writing and his revulsion against Movement Conservatism: “moderation” is defined as compromise, any kind of compromise, and “moderates” are invariably urged to pursue a course of action that coincides with the immediate political needs of the Republican Party.
On this latter point, Brooks may well continue to ventilate his disdain for the Rush Limbaughs of the world. But you will note that this column essentially urges “moderates” to join Rush in derailing Obama’s agenda, with an asterisk suggesting that somewhere down the road, they will need to develop and support an “alternative” agenda that represents the better angels of Barack Obama’s nature. The whole thing reads like an extended rationalization for “moderate” Republicans and Blue Dogs to cower in fear before the savage Obama-hatred of the Right, comforting themselves that they will eventually rule the country when the equally-extreme Left and Right have finally become exhausted.
Anyone tempted to agree with Brooks’ “manifesto” needs to have his or her head and conscience examined.