Triangulating David Brooks

About a week ago, Theda Skopcol wrote:

In such marked contrast to the timid triangulation of Clinton, Obama offers a strong, positive statement of the role of U.S. government in national development, past and for the future. Government does not "substitute" for business or individual action, but it is an essential "catalyst."

Today, David Brooks writes:

On Tuesday, I wrote that the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous. The column generated a large positive response from moderate Obama supporters who are anxious about where the administration is headed. It was not so popular inside the White House. Within a day, I had conversations with four senior members of the administration and in the interest of fairness, I thought I’d share their arguments with you today.

In the first place, they do not see themselves as a group of liberal crusaders. They see themselves as pragmatists who inherited a government and an economy that have been thrown out of whack. They’re not engaged in an ideological project to overturn the Reagan Revolution, a fight that was over long ago. They’re trying to restore balance: nurture an economy so that productivity gains are shared by the middle class and correct the irresponsible habits that developed during the Bush era.

The budget, they continue, isn’t some grand transformation of America. It raises taxes on energy and offsets them with tax cuts for the middle class. It raises taxes on the rich to a level slightly above where they were in the Clinton years and then uses the money as a down payment on health care reform. That’s what the budget does. It’s not the Russian Revolution.

Second, they argue, the Obama administration will not usher in an era of big government. Federal spending over the last generation has been about 20 percent of G.D.P. This year, it has surged to about 27 percent. But they aim to bring spending down to 22 percent of G.D.P. in a few years. And most of the increase, they insist, is caused by the aging of the population and the rise of mandatory entitlement spending. It’s not caused by big increases in the welfare state.

(Emphasis supplied.) Triangulation? Did I hear someone say triangulation? Here is the worrisome part of Brooks' column:

I’m more optimistic that if Senate moderates can get their act together and come up with their own proactive plan, they can help shape a budget that allays their anxieties while meeting the president’s goals.

But of course. For that is what Congressional "moderates" do - take a Democratic proposal and cut it, irrespective of the merits. Yesterday, Matt Yglesias revisited this issue:

Via Mike Tomasky, interesting reporting from Elizabeth Drew:

A prominent House Democrat told me that the decision, reached before Obama was sworn in, that the stimulus bill should be limited to $825 billion “was made from a political perspective, not for economic reasons.” He said, “I think the economic argument for going over $1 trillion is pretty good, but we feared that $1 trillion would produce sticker shock. We feared it would frighten off the Blue Dogs [conservative Democrats] and that Republicans would attack it.” It was assumed that the number would rise as the stimulus bill went through Congress, since that’s what normally happens with spending bills. Of course the Republicans attacked the lower number anyway.

And even then the Democrats’ majorities weren’t sufficient to give Obama all that he wanted. The stubborn fact remained that the Senate rules require sixty votes to pass anything of importance.

To me, the part I emphasized is the most troubling thing here. Any administration struggles with the fact that it’s hard to get congress to agree to stuff, and everyone needs to reel in their ambitions somewhat. But the White House appears to have undershot what it actually anticipated getting in terms of stimulus, assuming that the number would go up. Instead, thanks to the AMT patch, it in effect went down. That looks like a non-trivial exaggeration.

Triangulation happens in Washington. The Congressional "moderates" will do it no matter what you propose. It is discouraging when the President's team is doing it preemptively through David Brooks.

Speaking for me only

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    And... (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Dr Molly on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 07:45:48 AM EST
    did you see the comments on social security in that column? very worrisome.

    Very worrisome (none / 0) (#9)
    by sj on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 10:23:20 AM EST
    He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

    Emphasis, David Brooks, not mine.  

    Yes, very worrisome.


    theda skopcol (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by cpinva on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 07:57:59 AM EST
    is an idiot. a well paid idiot, but an idiot nonetheless.

    clinton's "timid triangulation" (or whatever buzzword of the month you want to call it) resulted, overall, in one of the most prosperous decades in US history, both economically and diplomatically.

    i'll take "timid triangulation" for $500 alex!

    it's dim bulbs like skopcol that have dumbed down the national discourse over the past 18 years. someone please offer her an early-out package.

    brooks. what can be said, that hasn't already been? nothing.

    one critical fact left out of the discussion: the costs of afghanistan and iraq are now "officially" included in the budget. under bush, they were "off budget" items. makes a difference. a material difference.

    to compare budgets, the past 6 year's worth would have to be re-stated, to include all those costs, in constant dollars.

    Restating previous budgets (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 08:01:28 AM EST
    to include those costs would be a very good idea. I am surprised the Obama Administration did not do that.

    they haven't done it because (none / 0) (#10)
    by cpinva on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 10:40:14 AM EST
    they don't have a cpa on staff. he/she would have insisted on it.

    Triangulation? (none / 0) (#4)
    by Steve M on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 08:20:38 AM EST
    But the budget hasn't changed any just because Obama's people tried to spin it.  I don't care about proclaiming that the era of big government is back or any of that crap; I care about what actually happens.  Take a good, progressive budget (very few complaints about it on the left, that's for sure) and then label it as pragmatic centrism - what's not to like?

    We'd also do well to cite two-time Bush voter John Cole:

    It really is quite amazing that so many people are so worked up about the changes Obama is making. The way people are reacting, you would think that Dennis Kucinich was elected, and the first thing he did was disband the military and start a 2 million man Department of Peace. Sure, what is happening is more "liberal" than what we have seen the last decade (and considering Clinton was no flaming liberal either, we could say several decades), and yes, the budget is large and made me want to vomit when I first saw the number. But this is not socialism, we are not "soaking the rich," etc. Nothing radical has happened at all, and if anything, it is the far left who has every right to be impatient because Obama is moving so slowly and so cautiously, and from a progressive standpoint is little more than a muddling centrist.

    The more people who call it centrism, the happier I am!

    The triangulation (none / 0) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 08:31:38 AM EST
    will happen in the legislative process, as you know.

    I suggest you reread my last lines. By retreating rhetorically, Obama paves the way for that process.

    Clinton's proposal never were what the GOP wanted - the triangulation was always rhetorical.

    There is a lot not to like in that now because the political climate is entirely different.

    I think you misunderstand the point entirely.


    BTW (none / 0) (#6)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 08:34:40 AM EST
    Brooks di not call it "Centrism," he said the Congressional "moderates" will make it "centrist" (though he really did not say even that.)

    The real problem is caring what David Brooks says at all.

    The political fate of the Obama Administration will not be determined by whether David Brooks thinks it is "centrist," it will be determined by whether they fix the economy. And on that, see my post on Geithner and the financial crisis where the Obama team is headed to an epic fail.

    If that happens, no will will give a sh*t what David Brooks said in this column.  


    Bingo (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by ruffian on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 10:09:30 AM EST
    The real problem is caring what David Brooks says at all.

    The fact that David Brooks writes a column and gets 4 calls from the administration is alarming. If they want to refute him in some way, do it directly to the public. Instead, he gets to a) act important and b) repeat their words in his 'they are saying' manner, whereas his original commentary calling the budget a big fat liberal package was done as a statement of fact.

    Whatever happened to going around the filter? As I said a long time ago, that has to mean more then just communicating with the faithful by text message. It has to mean talking directly to the people, as with the TV address and press conferences, and not using hacks like Brooks as an intermediary.


    and furthermore... (5.00 / 1) (#8)
    by ruffian on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 10:11:47 AM EST
    don't even get me started on the message itself. It's bad enough that it comes through Brooks.

    They're being smart (none / 0) (#11)
    by ai002h on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 01:12:24 PM EST
    Look at the article, they're not really saying anything we don't know, they aren't promising to change the budget proposal. The reality is the Obama budget is bold and because of its boldness, will need to be tempered as not "growing government" so that this thing isn't dead before it even gets voted on. At the end of the day, triangulating with journalists is much, much, less harmful than triangulating with politicians and with policy...thats when it becomes a problem.

    Fwiw...i comletely agree with BTD (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by ai002h on Fri Mar 06, 2009 at 01:17:21 PM EST
    when it comes to the handling of the banks. I love the budget but the handling of the banks, which is the biggest thing right now, has been horrendous. Dithering does not begin to explain what they're doing, and I'm 100% sure this is all Geithner driven. Obama's close advisors (Axelrod mainly) wanted to nationalize the banks several weeks back but Geithner basically pleaded with the president to let him try it his way, the guy is a pawn of Wall St. His greatest concern is making sure the shareholders reap the profits while tax payers put up all the risk and capital. I just hope that by the time Obama figures it out isn't too late.