Does Obama have a plan? A conversation with David Brooks

February 22, 2013
David Brooks (David Burnett/Random House)
David Brooks (David Burnett/Random House)

I had some issues with David Brooks's column Friday on the two parties' sequester positions. But rather than write a long response, I thought it would be more interesting to ask Brooks about the column directly. Happily, he agreed. A transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: In the column, you said that the Obama administration doesn’t have a plan to replace the sequester. I feel like I’ve had to spend a substantial portion of my life reading their various budgets and plans to replace the sequester, and my sense is that you’ve had to do this, too. So, what am I missing?

David Brooks: First, the column was a bit of an over-the-top lampooning column about dance moves. I probably went a bit too far when saying the president didn’t have a response to the sequester save to raise taxes on the rich. In the cool light of day, I can say that’s over the top. There’s chained CPI and $400 billion in health proposals. So I should say I was unfair. I’m going to attach a note to the column, if it’s not up already.

The second thing I would say is that, as [Congressional Budget Office director] Doug Elmendorf said in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee, there’s no scorable plan they’ve come up with, at least this time around. And given that one theme of the budget negotiations has been that it can be very hard to tell what’s on the table from the White House, it would serve the country well if they put out something specific.

EK: I don’t know the Elmendorf comments off-hand, but CBO did score the president’s budget, and almost all of their proposals are drawn from that. I find, in general, that legislators often ask Elmendorf if he’s scored things from the White House and then crow about the fact that he hasn’t, when all that’s really going on is CBO doesn’t score everything the president does or says.

DB: If you look at the charts I’ve seen, they’re targets that, say, cut x from agriculture spending, and specifically how you do that is vague. And given the difficulty of past negotiations, I think having something concrete and standalone is the way for the president to go. The difficulty is that on the one hand, the president is one side of the negotiation with the Republicans, and on the other hand, he’s the president, and I think hes got a responsibility to set the basic framework of the debate. He’s set basic concepts, like balance, which he’s right about, but I don’t think he’s given us a document that would anchor the debate in a boring, managerial framework so we can have a debate over substance.

EK: On that point, one theme in your column, and in a lot of columns these days, is this idea that the president should, on the one hand, be putting forward centrist policies, and on the other hand, that if he’s putting forward policies that the Republican Party won’t agree to, those policies don’t count, as they’re nothing more than political ploys. But while I agree that some level of political realism should enter into any White House’s calculations, it seems a bit dangerous and strange to say the boundaries of the discussion should be set by the agenda that lost the last election.

DB: In my ideal world, the Obama administration would do something Clintonesque: They’d govern from the center; they’d have a budget policy that looked a lot more like what Robert Rubin would describe, and if the Republicans rejected that, moderates like me would say that’s awful, the White House really did come out with a centrist plan.

EK: But I’ve read Robert Rubin’s tax plan. He wants $1.8 trillion in new revenues. The White House, these days, is down to $1.2 trillion. I’m with Rubin on this one, but given our two political parties, the White House’s offer seems more centrist. And you see this a lot. People say the White House should do something centrist like Simpson-Bowles, even though their plan has less in tax hikes and less in defense cuts. So it often seems like a no-win for them.

DB: My first reaction is I’m not a huge fan of Simpson-Bowles anymore; I used to be. Among others, you persuaded me the tax reform scheme in theirs is not the best. Simpson-Bowles just doesn’t do enough on entitlements, For sensible reasons, they took health care more or less off the table. I don’t know where Rubin is right now. I held him up as an exemplar of Democratic centrism, but if he had a big tax increase and entitlement reform, I’d be for that.

There are times when I think the White House offered Republicans plans they were crazy not to take. I wrote that in 2011. And I hope Republicans look back on that as a gigantic missed opportunity. So I agree with you they shouldn’t be given veto power over the debate, but I still think that if you look at what moderates want the administration to do, they have not gone far enough.

EK: What would be far enough, in your view? What would you like to see them offer?

DB: My fantasy package, and I’m not running for office, would include a progressive consumption tax, and it would have chained CPI, and it would have a pretty big means-test of Medicare. I’d direct you to Yuval Levin’s piece in the Times a few days ago, which seemed sensible.

EK: On the topic of deals Republicans should take, I’m completely confused by their stance on the sequester. It seems to me that Republicans have five budget goals right now. They want to reduce the deficit, cut entitlements, protect defense, simplify the tax code by cutting out various expenditures, and lower rates. Since Democrats are willing to count cuts to tax expenditures as tax increases and trade entitlement cuts for them, Republicans could get four of their five goals by striking a sequester deal, and they could always cut tax rates later, whenever they get into power. What am I missing?

DB: Here’s something I’m confused by: how much they still believe in top rate reductions. I would say in the conservative economist world I think I know almost nobody, maybe there are a few exceptions, who’s super motivated by top rate reductions anymore. I don’t think that’s true with Republican members of Congress. I think there’s a lag between the wonks and the legislators. The second thing is, for them, the big issue is overall size of government. When they try to explain why growth is so slow, it’s because we’re saddled with this large, unproductive public sector, and they need to bring that down. And cutting tax expenditures would generate money for a bigger more unproductive public sector.

EK: So, then, what do you see as the White House’s motivating theory?

DB: If I were to capsulize their theory, it’s lets stabilize the debt over 10 years, maybe do some things that would make it better beyond the 10-year window, but let’s not try to take care of the long-term debt issue all at once. Achieve a floor and then focus on growth and equity. And I guess my response would be, as the [International Monetary Fund] and others have said, if you don’t lay the groundwork for a long-term debt solution now, it gets immeasurably harder every year you wait. I agree there are three big issues -- equity, growth and debt -- and it's hard to address all three at the same time. But that’s what we need to do.

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