Tuesday, October 16, 2012

David Brooks, Master Craftsman of Republican Talking Points

Okay... it's really not worth my time to dissent a column this risible, but... today, David Brooks gives a lecture on bipartisanship that, true to his standard, consists of his spin on the latest Republican talking points, recast to appear measured and moderate to those who might be... normally I might say, average to less-informed voters, today I'll say, people who aren't very good at thinking. How many sharks can you jump in a single column?

Brooks starts with a Richard Dawson impression. Survey says.... "viewers loved Mitt Romney’s talk of professionalism and bipartisanship." No need to argue why that is or what it actually means.
In other words, primary campaigns are won by the candidate who can most convincingly champion the party’s agenda, but general election campaigns are won by the candidate who can most plausibly fix the political system.
As any Tea Party member can tell you, there is a difference between "bipartisanship" and what it might take to "plausibly fix the political system". Brooks also knows as a matter of policy, reaching a bipartisan solution can weaken a policy proposal. That's not always the case, but by definition a bipartisan solution is going to be less partisan than, if I need to say it, a partisan solution. If you're looking for purity of ideology, you want partisanship.

Brooks then goes through a Romney-like list of elements he deems essential to "break[ing] through the partisan dysfunction and mak[ing] Washington work". Let's start with what it doesn't take:
  1. It "doesn’t take moderation". Brooks points to Ted Kennedy, whom he argues "had the ability to craft large and effective compromises on issues ranging from immigration to education and health care."

    That of course explains why Ted Kennedy won the nomination to be the Democratic Party's candidate back in 1980, sailed into the White House and... oh, right.

    Well then, it explains why David Brooks and the Republicans view Kennedy as a pillar of bipartisanship, a figure they respect and admire, and regard the culmination of his career of work in favor of healthcare reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as what you can achieve through a true bipartisan effort. Oh... right.

    Well, Ted Kennedy did cosponsor the DREAM Act, and that sailed through the... oh, right, the Republicans changed their mind.

    Recall, Ted Kennedy is not only Brooks' best example in support of his point, Kennedy is his only example. I'm not going to dispute that over the course of a very long career Kennedy cosponsored some important legislation with Republicans, but anyone with knowledge of history knows that much of that cooperation occurred during a prior era when the parties were less polarized, when the Republicans didn't see obstructionism as a winning election strategy, and worked in contexts in which the Republican cosponsors saw an opportunity to benefit from attaching their names to the bill. John McCain didn't drop his support for the DREAM Act because Kennedy became less persuasive. He dropped it because he was afraid of losing his seat to a primary challenger.

  2. Might doesn't "make right". Brooks lectures that the effective President has to avoid thinking that his position is objectively the correct one, and that he can "win the debate" and get everything he wants simply by "get[ting] the facts out there". Brooks somehow forgets to tell us where "out there" is, or what any of this has to do with passing legislation.

    Were Brooks honest about it, he would admit that he's not talking about what it takes to pass legislation, but what it takes to defend legislation that is not popular. If the opposition party is lying about the legislation and its effects, can you count on convincing people of the truth merely bu putting "the facts out there"? Obviously not.

    As you work through his column, it becomes increasingly clear that Brooks is making little effort at internal consistency. He's instead alluding to right-wing criticisms of President Obama.

  3. Don't live in a fantasy world - "distant fantasies almost never come true", so it's better to work for incremental change. What Brooks actually means here is that a President who has the opportunity to pass legislation that Brooks opposes should instead pass something modest, perhaps inconsequential, in the name of "partisanship". Never mind that the actual fantasy would be believing that, after another election, somebody like Mitch McConnell will change his stripes, apologize for setting a legislative agenda around defeating you, and suddenly become a partner for progress.

Of course by now you're wondering, what does it take to be the bipartisan savior - the "governing craftsman" for whom Brooks so hungers.
  1. Having a "dual consciousness" - "[T]he governing craftsman has to... distinguish between a campaign consciousness and a governing consciousness." Campaigning involves "simplifying your own positions, exaggerating your opponent’s weaknesses and magnifying the differences between your relative positions", while governing involves doing "the reverse of all these things".

    Needless to say, Brooks offers zero examples to back this claim up.

    Let me give you an example for how presenting complicated positions, attempting to bridge the differences between yourself and the opposing party, and taking up their opposition works in practice. A President might take, say, a health care reform idea that has its roots in the Republican Party and right-wing 'think tanks', and has even been adopted in one state by a Republican governor, attempt to tweak and update it so it will work on a national basis, and repeatedly attempt to reach across the aisle for bipartisan support. Sound effective?

    Now let's consider what "the opposite" looks like. The sort of approach Brooks would surely tell us would be a one-way ticket out of Washington. The opposition leader might sniff that his number one job is to defeat you, not work with you. The opposition might engage in demagoguery about the plan, asserting that it is socialism, a government take-over of health care, that bureaucrats will decide the care that you get, that it will have death panels that can deny you life-saving care.

    Thank goodness we live in a political culture in which "governing consciousness" rules the day, because one would hate to think what might happen a president or opposition leader couldn't get past his "campaign consciousness". The horror.

  2. "Being able to count".

    Is Brooks trying to rule out Mitt Romney at this point, based on budget numbers that don't add up? No, Brooks is pointing ot the obvious fact that if a President wants legislation to pass he must gather enough votes in the House and Senate to get it to pass.

  3. Being able to "distinguish between existential issues and business issues." Brooks evokes that famous American politician, Winston Churchill, and contents that "Churchill would have made a terrible mistake if he had compromised with the appeasers". That assertion is going to make little sense to a casual reader, but immediately evokes the right-wing tropes against President Obama - Mitt Rommey's demagoguery and his persistent lies about an "apology tour". Brooks, a good Republican to his very core, is articulating a set of rules for others, specifically Democrats, not for himself.

    Brooks has one other example he offers in support of his point, "On the other hand, Dan Rostenkowski and Robert Packwood were absolutely right to compromise to get the tax reform of 1986 passed." Let's see... so far his examples of politicians who live up to his deals are the late Ted Kennedy, the late Winston Churchill, the late Dan Rostenkowski, and the long-politically dead Robert Packwood. As I said, he's describing what happened in an era during which the parties were less polarized, and pretending it carries over into a significantly different era.

    Assuming Brooks is aware that Winston Churchill would be ineligible to run for President, which of the two additional names he's mentioned does he imagine would have been the "craftsman" politician who would have been elected to the presidency in a walk and presided over a golden era of bipartisanship?

    Brooks feigns child-like innocence, that "in the middle of the fight almost every issue will feel like an existential issue, though, in reality, 98 percent of legislative conflicts are business issues". Perhaps Brooks is describing his own confusion, because although I can see plenty of examples of the opposition party turning "business issues" into stumbling blocks - preventing appointments from going through, needlessly obstructing the progress of legislation that it will ultimately support, spreading misinformation about what should be relatively non-controversial passages in new or pending legislation, and the like.

    I'm not coming up with an example of a president confusing business issues with existential issues. It's fair to observe, though, neither does Brooks - we know he's attacking President Obama through innuendo, but Brooks knows how foolish he would look if he came right out and made that claim.

  4. Brooks offers the brilliant insight, that his bipartisan leader must be "able to read a calendar". Brooks explains that the politician must understand that they cannot postpone their agenda until after the next election in order to act - that it's "usually better to make a small step next month than do nothing in hopes of a total victory next generation".

    Let's imagine then, that the President is facing a large deficit and national debt, and that people are urging a so-called "grand bargain" that will supposedly balance the budget for decades to come. "Never mind the fact that this Congress cannot bind future sessions of Congress", those maximalists might argue, "You can't take seriously any budget proposal that doesn't fix everything for decades - or longer!"

    The David Brooks who wrote the current column might lecture those politicians and peers that they are being absurd, not only due to the fact that the next session of Congress might undo the work, but because it's not a realistic outcome to expect. He might argue, "If you calm down and take a look at the President's tax plan, you'll find that it does a lot to accomplish your stated goals. This isn't an existential issue - it's business. It's what can pass through Congress, right now. Think of it as a first step down a long road."

    But the David Brooks we have come to know and love? He wants none of that incremental stuff.

    Obama would be wiser to champion a Grand Bargain strategy. Use the Congressional deficit supercommittee to embrace the sort of new social contract we’ve been circling around for the past few years: simpler taxes, reformed entitlements, more money for human capital, growth and innovation.
    So guzzle that Kool-Aid and shoot for the moon! But... what if the public resists?
    Don’t just whisper Grand Bargain in back rooms with John Boehner. Make it explicit. Take it to the country. Lower the ideological atmosphere and get everybody thinking concretely about the real choices facing the nation.
    Doesn't that translate into the big "no-no" of thinking, "all I have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate and then I’ll get everything I want."? No, you see, this is completely different - all you have to do is get the facts out there, win the debate, and then David Brooks will get everything he wants. No rules or principles should get in the way of that.

  5. Be "socially promiscuous." Brooks argues that a good deal maker will have lots of friends, be constantly glad handing the opposition, "celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays". You know, the sort of thing that helped Clinton have such a smooth, carefree relationship with the opposition party during his presidency.

    Were Brooks an honest man, he would admit that he's merely parroting an Republican talking point that the President does horrible things like... eating dinner with his family when he could be out at cocktail parties glad handing Republicans and lobbyists. Never mind that, by a number of accounts, Mitt Romney is no social butterfly, and came to be detested by pretty much every one of his primary opponents in two consecutive primary seasons. Never mind that many Republicans openly hated him right up to the second they were stuck with him.

  6. Be a really good liar, and conspire against your base. Seriously. Brooks lectures,

    It is relatively easy to cut a deal with the leader of the other party. It is really hard to sell that deal to the rigid people in your own party. Therefore, the craftsman has to enter into a conspiracy with the other party’s leader in order to manipulate the party bases. The leaders have to invent stories so that each base thinks it has won.
    On the little issues - the "business issues" - that's relatively simple, politics as usual. A bit of spin, the issues not that important, you make a deal. How in the world, though, does Brooks believe that will work in relation to solving big issues. Might it sound like President Obama, at a debate, telling the public that he and Mitt Romney aren't very far apart on how to fix Social Security? If so, what are the odds that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are going to get out of the way and allow the passage of a modest reform bill that will fix Social Security's balance sheet for the next 50 - 75 years?

  7. Next, you have to compromise in advance - show "substance pragmatism". Your base wants Medicare for all? A public option alongside private health plans? The insurance industry and healthcare industry want to be sure that the reform will not affect their bottom line profits? Insurance companies want to ensure that they will stay in business, perhaps even become more profitable, despite changes that will otherwise reduce their bottom line? A "craftsman" President might do what President Obama did - work with the various industries and their lobbyists to overcome their opposition to any reform, build the reform on the platform of a right-wing, Republican-endorsed system of private insurance, a mandate to purchase insurance, and keeping the reformed system as market-based as possible. He might get a true craftsman like Ted Kennedy to strongly endorse the bill and its passage.

    No, of course that's all wrong. Stop arguing based upon those facts with their icky "liberal bias" - Brooks' column is about advancing Republican spin. What an honest Brooks might describe as the outcome of his "conspiracy with the other party's" leadership to "manipulate the party bases" and "invent stories." Because that's what pundits do when they are approached for help by a "governing craftsman".

Brooks knows he's being dishonest when he argues that voters are demanding "craftsmanship" in advance of the "brutal trade-offs that loom ahead". Were he an honest man, he would note that Romney's new "talk of professionalism and bipartisanship" is belied by his own campaign trail rhetoric and that, rather than addressing any of the "brutal trade-offs" that Brooks sees as inevitable Romney is promising the Sun, moon and stars - tax cuts for everyone, a huge increase in military spending, pain free spending cuts (trust him, even though he only states support for cutting PBS and the unpopular parts of Obamacare), and that he'll cure the nation's woes by magic - why, if people simply believe he's going to be elected, flowers will burst forth from the ground, the stock market will reach uncharted heights... yeah.

Brooks also cannot be so obtuse as to believe that "Voters [were] astonishingly clear. In 2000, they elected George W. Bush after he promised to change the tone in Washington". If Brooks checks his history books, he'll find that if you look at the popular vote the 2000 election was won by Al Gore. Last I checked, losing the popular vote was an "astonishingly clear" message that more people wanted your opponent to win than wanted you to win, even if you carry the electoral vote. Similarly, Brooks might realize that more was going on in 2008 than the Republican's self-proclaimed maverick, campaigning on a claimed record of "reaching across the aisle," lost to a candidate who merely "promised to move the country beyond stale partisan debates". The country I was in was suffering from a profound economic crisis, and McCain's response was not perceived as impressive. Where was Brooks?

Brooks would have done better to have written a column about how politicians will try to sell you snake oil while on the campaign trail, but alas, that would have ended up being a column in support of the wrong party.

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