February 22, 2013

David Brooks, after taking a pounding for basing his column on the idea that Obama has no deficit reduction plan, attaches an addendum to his column admitting that he got it wrong. Sort of, anyway:

It is true, as the director of the Congressional Budget Office has testified, that the administration has not proposed a specific anti-sequester proposal that can be scored or passed into law. It is not fair to suggest, as I did, that tax hikes for the rich is the sole content of the president’s approach. The White House has proposed various constructive changes to spending levels and entitlement programs. These changes are not nearly adequate in my view, but they do exist, and I should have acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s approach.

This is actually a step forward. Brooks is acknowledging, without quite saying so, that one side has a compromise plan and the other doesn’t. After all, he’s acknowledging that Obama’s plan includes some of what both sides want, while as we all know, the other side’s plan is to avert the sequester only though spending cuts, i.e., only through what one side wants.

As I’ve noted here before, what we’re witnessing here is probably best described as the “centrist dodge.” Pundits who want to maintain the line that both sides are to blame for the primary impasse that continues to paralyze our politics — the question of whether to fix our fiscal problems only with spending cuts, or with a mix of cuts and revenues from the wealthy — continue to face a basic problem. They essentially agree with Democrats that a mix is the way to go, and see the GOP’s cuts-only approach as extreme and damaging. But they can’t quite say this aloud, because then they’d be taking sides and would no longer be able to maintain their aura of transcending partisanship and sagely occupying the sensible middle ground.

These commentators usually get around this in one of two ways. They either simply pretend that Obama and Democrats don’t hold the position they actually hold. In this case, Brooks tried to maintain this fiction, but he did it so flagrantly that he got caught out and had to admit as much. Or they simply claim that Democrats have not quite conceded enough in the direction of the middle ground mix of cuts and revenues they want. That’s what Brooks has now done; while acknowledging his mistake, he still needs to argue that the cuts Obama has proposed are “not nearly adequate enough.”

Brooks has admitted error, but this is still fundamentally a dodge. After all, the plan put forth the other day by Democrats might not be “adequate enough” to make all our fiscal problems vanish forever, but it would, in fact, avert the sequester — which Brooks says will be disastrous to the country — through roughly equivalent concessions by both sides. It is, by definition, a compromise plan. Why, then, is this inadequate as a temporary solution?

More broadly, the basic overall question still stands: Is there anything Obama and Dems can offer to Republicans — anything that falls short of essentially giving Republicans everything they want for little or nothing in return — that would make them drop their no-compromise-on-revenues-at-any-cost stance? If so, name it. If not, then why are both sides equally to blame? Why isn’t this stance completely unacceptable — far worse than anything Dems are doing — to the very same people who are arguing that compromise is the Holy Grail? Why can’t these folks simply say, “Dems haven’t gone far enough, but ultimately, I agree with the broad strokes of their approach, and they’re far less to blame for our current crisis than Republicans are”?

Ron Fournier, to his credit, took a stab today at answering the basic question here, but he appeared unable to name anything that might get Republicans to drop their zero-compromise stance. The plain fact is that the centrist “both sides to blame” position cannot hold in the face of reality. Today Brooks took a first step towards unwittingly revealing that.

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UPDATE: Republicans could fairly argue that the Senate plan to avert the sequester temporarily doesn’t really contain equivalent concessions by both sides, because some of the cuts are to defense. But Republicans have taken the position that as soon as Democrats insist revenues must be part of the equation, then the conservation is over. In other words, Republicans could take the Senate Dem plan, and suggest cuts they want instead — and Dems might very well be open to their demands — but they won’t, simply because the continued Dem insistence on revenues automatically renders this a nonstarter for them.

It’s on people like Brooks, who want a compromise, to explain why the Senate Dem compromise approach — a 50-50 mix of cuts and revenues — is inadequate as a short term solution.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.