the national interest

David Brooks, Obama Plan Birther, Repents! [Updated]

David Brooks of the New York Times speaks during a live taping of Meet the Press March 30, 2008 in Washington, DC.
Show me the certificate! That’s not real! Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As a general rule, the craziest, most rabid, most provably false political ideas come from the political extremes. They flourish within small ideological subcultures that lock out opposing viewpoints. But occasionally such weird myths can be found not on the fringes but in the center.

A virulent example of this has emerged during the latest iteration of the fiscal debate. Advocates of what Matthew Yglesias calls “BipartisanThink” have found themselves trapped between two impulses. On the one hand, they fervently believe that the country’s most vital priority is to pass a plan to reduce the deficit through a mix of cuts to retirement programs and reduced tax deductions. On the other hand, they believe with equal fervor that the two parties are equally to blame for the country’s problems in general, and the failure to pass such a plan in particular.

Their problem is that one party agrees with them completely, and the other rejects them. This creates a paradox between the two mental tentpoles of BipartisanThink. The solution is to simply wish away the facts, thus bringing them into line with reality.

David Brooks today devotes his column to upholding the known truths of BipartisanThink. He lashes out at the obstinacy of the Republican Party and its refusal to compromise on the deficit. But he has to balance it out by asserting that President Obama, too, lacks any such plan:

Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy, the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich)…

The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.

He does have a vague and politically convenient concept. (Tax increases on the rich!). 

This is demonstrably false. Whatever you think about the substantive merits of Obama’s plan, it does exist. Obama has a proposal to replace sequestration with long-term deficit reduction that includes a mix of entitlement spending cuts and higher revenue. He talks about it all the time. Here is the plan. Yesterday the administration reiterated that it continues to stand behind this offer.

Interestingly, when the administration released Obama’s birth certificate, it did not win over all the birthers, but at least managed to discourage some of them, and force the rest to devise more inventive conspiracies. But the release of the deficit plan certificate has not, as far as I can tell, even slightly fazed the Plan Birthers. Their certainty in the nonexistence of Obama’s deficit plan remains wholly unperturbed.

This is not to say all of them have replied exactly as Brooks has. They have offered a up a variety of approaches to blocking out the existence of Obama’s plan. Brooks’ method is Full Birther. The Washington Post editorial page, which I discussed recently, offered up a slightly more subtle tack, making an argument that implies that Obama has no plan to replace the sequester, and which would collapse if forced to acknowledge the existence of Obama’s plan, but does not directly assert that it does not exist. National Journal editor Ron Fournier has a more sophisticated method still, quickly acknowledging that Obama has a plan but then asserting at length that the failure of Republicans to compromise is Obama’s fault:

President Obama makes a credible case that he has reached farther toward compromise than House Republicans.

But knowing who’s at fault doesn’t fix the problem. To loosely quote Billy Joel: You may be right, Mr. President, but this is crazy.

The rest of the column is dedicated to flaying Obama for the GOP’s refusal to compromise. It’s the least-insane of the various iterations of BipartisanThink –you can’t disprove the assertion that some speech, negotiating method, or application of personal charm would persuade Republicans to abandon their most fundamental principles – but it’s still fairly deranged.

In my experience, I have found that advocates of BipartisanThink tend to process challenges to their beliefs as attacks from partisans – which, since they measure the truth of an idea as the degree to which it avoids partisanship, merely reinforces their own sense of correctness. Thus an insanely false belief has managed to sustain itself because it is the only way for the subculture of sensible bipartisan wise men to reconcile otherwise irreconcilable elements of their belief system. The center has created a fever swamp of its own.

Update: Brooks, to his credit, has posted an addendum to his column acknowledging that Obama does have a plan, but deems it “not nearly adequate”:

The above column was written in a mood of justified frustration over the fiscal idiocy that is about to envelop the nation. But in at least one respect I let my frustration get the better of me. 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.

Second Update: Brooks does an interview with Ezra Klein, which ends up as a total takedown. Brooks admits Obama does have a plan, but takes refuge in the claim that the Congressional Budget Office didn’t score it. Klein informs him that the CBO doesn’t score informal negotiating offers, but did score the elements as they appeared in Obama’s budget. The best part is when Brooks asserts that a centrist Democrat like Robert Rubin would be proposing something way more moderate than what Obama is offering:

Brooks: 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.

Klein: But I’ve read Robert Rubin’s tax plan. He wants $1.8 trillion in new revenues.

That is a brutal bluff-calling.

Despite all appearances, I don’t want to be too hard here on Brooks. He’s trying to be fair-minded and reasonable. But his admission that he misstated Obama’s alleged lack of a fiscal plan out of “frustration,” rather than ignorance is damning. Everybody gets things wrong but you can’t just print false factual claims to make a point! Ultimately he’s just displaying a kind of sloppy thinking. He conceives of politics in grand ideological archetypes, rather than building his beliefs on the basis of facts and evidence. He’s inadvertently displaying how a generalized belief in moderation unmoored in deeper policy grounding leads you badly astray.

This post has been updated throughout.

David Brooks, Obama Plan Birther [Updated]