There’s a well-established rhetorical practice available very often in the op-ed pages of The New York Times that ought to be called the Brooks Maneuver. It involves framing a complicated public policy issue in terms of abstract and conflicting principles that the columnist sympathizes with but deems tragically incompatible, before concluding that any resolution will require a brave new kind of politics that just doesn’t exist. Thus, sadly, no action is advisable until that great day when wise solons take charge, a course of action that happens to coincide, amazingly, with the short-term strategy of the Republican Party.
Mr. Brooks provided a virtuoso performance of his Maneuver yesterday, in a column on health care. Check out this opening gambit:
[L]ike all great public issues, the health care debate is fundamentally a debate about values. It’s a debate about what kind of country we want America to be.
During the first many decades of this nation’s existence, the United States was a wide-open, dynamic country with a rapidly expanding economy. It was also a country that tolerated a large amount of cruelty and pain — poor people living in misery, workers suffering from exploitation.
Over the years, Americans decided they wanted a little more safety and security. This is what happens as nations grow wealthier; they use money to buy civilization.
From this lofty perspective, Brooks goes on to stipulate that the health care reform debate represents a choice between “security” and “vitality,” because, he says (on the authority of a Wall Street Journal column), the current legislation is sure to rapidly accelerate health care costs and seriously damage the economy.
And so he concludes:
[Reform] would heal a wound in the social fabric while piling another expensive and untouchable promise on top of the many such promises we’ve already made. America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one.
We all have to decide what we want at this moment in history, vitality or security. We can debate this or that provision, but where we come down will depend on that moral preference.
The Brooks Maneuver on health care accomplishes two devious purposes.
First, it identifies the opponents of health care reform with “vitality” and “growth.” In reality, what most reform foes are defending is the status quo in health care, which is hardly “vital” or entrepreneurial in any significant way. Costs are already skyrocketing, most health decision are greatly affected by massive private and public-sector bureaucracies, and the “cruelty” Brooks admits is accompanied by extraordinary inefficiency. Brooks is a past master at “plague on both houses” formulations, but this one, more than most, represents a terribly false moral equivalency.
Second, by lamenting the supposedly long-lost opportunity to control costs, Brooks suggests indirectly that someday, somehow, a health care reform strategy might be devised that transcends the terrible choice between ruthless laissez-fairism and economic collapse. That must, surely, be worth waiting for, right? So without coming right out and saying it, the column leads the reader in the direction of rejecting today’s reforms for those that will someday emerge, when the horrible partisan viccisitudes of the past few years are behind us and America once again finds the “sweet spot” where conflicting values can be reconciled.
Am I overinterpeting Brooks? Maybe, maybe not. But without question, by arguing that the health reform debate poses an impossible choice, he’s avoiding the real choice between a status quo whose few virtues are fading each day, and a chance to head in a different direction. That, too, is a matter of “moral preference.”