Uh-oh. David Brooks is offering the President advice again. Since we’re told that Brooks is one of President Obama’s favorite columnists, there’s always the chance that his latest idea will gain traction in the White House. Brooks is smart, and he’s a good salesman, so his ideas may resonate with a lot of other powerful Democrats, too.
That would be a very, very bad thing indeed. He’s using new catchphrases to dress up some very bad, very old, and very unpopular ideas.
Two old paradigms ain’t worth forty cents.
The Brooks proposal may sound fresh, but it’s really only a mash-up of two stale notions: That “bipartisanship” happens whenever well-heeled Democratic and Republican politicians cut a deal, and that “transformation” is always exciting and positive – no matter what you’re transforming from or to.
Brooks is still thinking in clichéd, outmoded “left” vs. “right” terms. Like so many others in Washington, he doesn’t realize that the world has changed. The Grand Compromise he’s offering isn’t between “liberals” and “conservatives,” but between most Americans – Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, Tea Partiers as well as progressives – and the tiny band of Washington insiders that have hijacked that city’s thinking with ideas they continue to peddle as “bipartisan.”
He has Washington intellectual fashion on his side, and that’s no accident: This new style was developed by well-funded intellectual couturiers and then sold wholesale to receptive journalists, with Brooks among their most reliable retailers. This fashion will be wildly unpopular with the electorate, and we have the numbers to prove it.
The “moment is ripe for fundamental change,” says Brooks. “The popular longing for change is at its strongest.” He’s a couple of years too late. There was a yearning for fundamental change, and a belief that the 2008 election might bring it about. That moment’s passed. I don’t know anybody who’s looking for some unnamed, exciting “change” anymore. Do you? Since he offers no polling information to back up these sweeping statements, it’s hard to give them much credibility.
Brooks sees a nation longing for excitement, but the rest of us live in a world where hope is a barely affordable luxury. A lot of Americans are fearful for the future. 80% believe, for example, that the American middle class is in decline . Change for change’s sake is a meaningless novelty for the millions of Americans who are struggling just to survive. They’re struggling to hold on to what they’ve got.
Big “transformative” ideas can backfire. Remember “New Coke”? This proposal is political New Coke.
A lopsided deal
What kind of “grand bargain” is Mr. Brooks proposing? “Offer the left something it really craves,” he says, like a short-term stimulus plan for the economy. “Then offer the right something it really craves,” he says – before launching into laundry list as long as your arm: Corporate tax “reform” (he means tax cuts for corporations). Individual tax reform (he means tax cuts for the wealthy). Social Security “reform” (he means slashing your retirement benefits). Medicare “reform” (he means cutting medical benefits and giving out funny-money vouchers instead).
And, just in case that isn’t enough to satisfy the cravings of “the right,” he adds: “And other things.” In business negotiations we used to call this sort of phrase a “placeholder,” a receptacle to be filled later with every item on our wish list.
See what he just did there? He used the outdated “left/right” paradigm to sell us a whole lot of massively unpopular policies, leavened with a few short-term dollars for a very popular one. He’s good.
Working without a net
“It should be possible to strengthen the social safety net,” writes Brooks, “while modernizing some of the Great Society structures.” That makes it a three-fer of Washington clichés: We’re already seen bipartisan and transformative, and now we’re modernizing too. What would this “modern,” “transformed” social safety net look like?
First up is a “Medicare reform plan in which new enrollees would received a fixed contribution from the government, growing a bit faster than inflation.” Did you catch that? He tried to slip the real deal right past you. What he calls “reform” is really “demolition.” Medicare as we know it would be dismantled and replaced a “fixed contribution” – that is, a voucher – which would be used to buy health coverage on the open market.
This plan wouldn’t just eliminate the safety net for senior health care. It would double down on a broken health care system, leaving elderly Americans unable to provide the most basic coverage for themselves. It would grow “a bit faster than inflation” – while health care costs have been growing three and four times faster than inflation! What’s more, the elderly would have to purchase that insurance from slick, doubletalking sales types – you know, the kind who try to slip the real deal right past you.
But it’s bipartisan, says Brooks. It’s endorsed by “Paul Ryan, a Republican, and Alice Rivlin, a Democrat.” That’s like saying the British attack on New York during the Revolutionary War was supported by “King George III, a Briton, and Benedict Arnold, a American.” Besides, as the poll figures show, this isn’t about what Alice Rivlin or any other Beltway Democrat wants. It’s about what the public wants … and what’s in their best interests.
The Medicare voucher idea may appeal to Brooks, but the electorate hates it. It’s opposed by 69% of Democrats, 67% of independents, and 62% of Republicans.  His reply might be, “but we’re not cutting them to lower the deficit. We’re just ‘modernizing,’ remember?” Even a great salesman like Brooks won’t be able to pull that one off. That line plays well with the DC crowd, but nobody else.
Brooks is deliberately vague about Social Security, saying only that the President can “build momentum” for its “reform.” Now that we know that “reform” is a euphemism for “annihilation” in his lexicon, we know where this is headed. Eight out of ten voters in another poll oppose cutting the program to reduce the deficit . while six out of ten “would feel unfavorably toward an elected official who says we cannot reduce the deficit without cutting Social Security benefits.”
Six out of ten Americans would look unfavorably on a politician who even suggests cutting Social Security? That figure could prove “transformative,” all right – on Election Day.
I’m gonna make you a star …
Brooks summarizes his ideas this way: The “left” gets “an activist job growth agenda” and “industrial policy.” The “right” gets “fundamental welfare state reform.” Do you catch that? “Fundamental welfare state reform” – that is, the dismantling of the social safety net – is a profound and permanent change. Combine that with Brooks’ proposed tax “reforms,” and we’ve now irrevocably dismantled government’s social functions in order to provide big tax cuts for wealthy people and corporations.
But that “activist job growth agenda” offered in return is a temporary measure. Even if the “right” honored this deal, it amounts to a few bucks today in return for trillions of dollars … forever.
And let’s have a show of hands: Who believes they’d honor even that lopsided deal?
Back in the fifties record producers would bring kids into the studio to record a song they’d written, and they’d give them $50 in cash for songwriters’ rights. That seemed like big money to kids who were hungry and poor, but that fifty bucks sometimes cost singers like Frankie Lymon millions of dollars. This deal’s like that. The middle class is being offered a few bucks in upfront money in return for its future rights to retirement security and healthcare. We’re all Frankie Lymon now … except that I doubt we’d even get the fifty bucks.
By the way, Frankie Lymon’s big hit was “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?”
They’ve got the pundits, but we’ve got the numbers
Brooks says there’s an “inchoate longing for change,” and the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “inchoate” means “just begun and so not fully formed or developed; rudimentary.” What he really means is that he has no poll numbers to back up his claim. Actually the public mood on these policies is very, uh, choate. Here are more numbers to prove it:
Do Americans want us to invest more in infrastructure? Yes. According to a Campaign for America’s Future post-election poll , most Americans support that position, including a large majority of swing voters (58% to 35%) and a near-majority of independents (50% to 43%). 80% of those polled supported a five-year strategy to revive American manufacturing.
That means, contra Brooks, that these are hardly “left” ideas. One is an everybody-but-Republicans position, and others are everybody-including-Republicans positions. So the “gimme” in the Brooks proposal isn’t for the “left.” It’s for the American majority – especially the swing voters the President and his party need so desperately.
Brooks’ proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security are so unpopular that they’re essentially “everybody but people like David Brooks” positions (and Alice Rivlin too, of course). 68% of all Americans opposed cutting Social Security or Medicare to lower the deficit, including 61% of all Republicans.
So his proposed trade-off is between a short-term idea that most Americans want and long-term ideas most Americans reject. Such a deal …
Negotiating Against America
Brooks is merely continuing a game that’s been played in Washington for months now, frequently with the President’s assent and sometimes with his active participation: People pretend there’s bartering between the “left” and the “right,” with most people somewhere in the middle. But what they’re really doing is negotiating against America. They’re placing the public’s interests and needs on one side of the scale, while the other side holds unpopular ideas supported only by the far right and the wealthy vested interests.
And occasionally, when they think nobody’s looking, somebody puts their thumb on the scale.
Apparently the only thing that isn’t popular in Washington is popular opinion.
If I were the President, I’d run as fast I can from David Brooks and his ideas. On the other hand, if I were David Brooks – that is, if I wanted to cut Social Security and end Medicare, but I knew that whoever does those things is committing political suicide – I’d do exactly what David Brooks has done. I’d come up with a really “transformative” idea:
Let Obama do it!
You can send a message to the White House, too. More information here: “Tell The President: Stand Up To The Hostage-Takers! Defend Social Security And Medicare”
 August Greenberg Quinlan poll for the Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America’s Future
 Post-election poll for the Democracy Corps and the Campaign for America’s Future
 Celinda Lake poll for Social Security Works
This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.