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David Brooks Endorses Protection-Racket Government

The best argument for electing Mitt Romney president has always been the following: The only factor that can possibly trump congressional Republicans' ideological extremism is the extremity of their partisanship.

Allow me to explain.

If a Democrat inhabited the White House, congressional Republicans would gladly do all they could to wreck the economy and dismantle the government so they could pursue their contradictory agenda of cutting taxes for the rich and balancing the federal budget. Some of them (let's call them the wingnuts) are so extremist that they don't actually believe this would wreck the economy; others (let's call them the nihilists) suspect or perhaps even know that it would, but don't care because they know a Democratic White House would absorb the blame.

If, however, a Republican were elected president, then congressional Republicans would feel obliged to moderate their positions to accommodate him. We saw this during the Bush administration when Republicans held their noses and voted to further nationalize education policy through the No Child Left Behind law and to expand the welfare state through the Medicare Part D drug benefit. (In at least one instance the Republican leadership attempted something that's always looked to me as though it met the legal definition of an actual bribe to get Medicare Part D passed. That's what I call political loyalty!) If Romney were elected president, we could pretty much count, at the very least, on the melting away of GOP squeamishness about raising the debt ceiling, and I'm pretty sure the rest of the GOP's economic agenda would be scaled back. Quite beyond the issue of not wanting to humiliate a Republican president, congressional Republicans would also be much warier of wrecking the economy, because they'd know their party would receive the blame. The nihilists would put a choke chain on the wingnuts (and some of the people we recognize today as wingnuts are probably secret nihilists to begin with). We'd likely hear a lot about how wonderfully "bipartisan" Washington had become, but the reason would be that Democrats would choose not to pursue the Republican policy of my-way-or-the-highway. Democrats, unlike Republicans, actually care about maintaining a working federal government regardless of who is in charge. That has always been their strategic disadvantage.

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I said that was the best argument for voting for Romney. I didn't say it was a good one. In fact, it would be a contemptible strategy of surrender to a bully. And until now, I thought conservatives were reluctant to acknowledge that the GOP was, in effect, running a protection racket. But in his column today ("The Upside of Opportunism"), David Brooks more or less says so.

If Obama were elected, Brooks writes, then Obama would pursue a "moderate and sensible agenda": $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases. A reduction in the corporate-tax rate. Elimination of "unnecessary" regulations. (To give you a rough idea of the state of play on "regulatory reform": The White House has already withdrawn, under Republican pressure, a regulation that would prevent minors from working in grain silos, even after watering it down to exclude smaller and family-owned farms, where about 70 percent of these teenagers—14 just in the past five years--get killed in grain avalanches.) The price of Obama's "moderation" would be passage of immigration reform, implementation of Obamacare (already the law of the land), and infrastructure spending (already more or less guaranteed to increase thanks to Hurricane Sandy).

Brooks is quite straightforward in recognizing that this "moderate" agenda (itself a surrender to GOP extremism) would not make it through the House of Representative (assuming, as is overwhelmingly likely, that it stays in GOP hands). Obama could still implement Obamacare, but immigration reform would be doomed and Obama would spend much of his second term absorbed in foreign policy. Nothing would be done to address the deficit, and Brooks doesn't even bother to consider whether anything could be achieved to reduce unemployment or income inequality. Under a Democrat, then, even a limited agenda that Brooks, a conservative, regards as "moderate and sensible," would be impossible because the wingnuts and the nihilists wouldn't allow it.

If Romney were elected, Brooks writes, we'd get some undefined "structural entitlement reform" and "fundamental tax reform" but in general Romney would govern as a moderate, raising taxes on the rich and scaling back the size of both the tax cuts and the spending cuts. Conservatives "would be in an uproar" but congressional Republicans "would probably go along." Conclusion: under Obama we'd get "small-bore stasis" whereas under Romney we'd get "bipartisan reform." Romney would be more likely "to get big stuff done." Brooks kids himself into thinking that this is because Romney is "more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama." In fact, to whatever extent Brooks has this scenario right, it's because the Republican wingnuts and nihilists in Congress are running a protection racket whereas the Democrats, under the same circumstances, would not. The GOP is interested in governance only if the GOP controls the White House.

Quite apart from Brooks' unacknowledged acceptance of government by protection racket, I don't accept Brooks' definition of "small-bore" versus "big stuff." The biggest stuff going in Washington today is Obamacare. Brooks doesn't address whether Romney would keep it or eliminate it. (I think it's impossible to know, but the man does say he'd eliminate it.) And Brooks doesn't mention the Dodd-Frank reforms at all, or the prospect of further Wall Street reforms down the road. Dodd-Frank is the second biggest stuff going in government today, and if Romney has any gut-level instincts at all I think they tell him that financial reform is deeply harmful to people like himself, and therefore unacceptable. If Obama's re-election guaranteed nothing more than continuation of Obamacare and Wall Street reform, that would be more than enough reason to favor it quite strongly. If the Republicans made it impossible to achieve, under Obama, any "tax reform" (i.e., lowering marginal rates still further in exchange for yet-undefined elimination of loopholes), then I'd actually consider that a significant plus.

Brooks also ignores, completely, the considerable leverage that a victorious Obama will possess over what to do about taxes. Under the "fiscal cliff" scenario, Republicans are looking at across-the-board tax increases and indiscriminate defense cuts. These are a painful prospect for Democrats, but a much more painful prospect for Republicans. Under a worst-case scenario, Republican intransigence on the fiscal cliff might put the economy back into recession, but it wouldn't ruin the economy in any permanent way, as most Republican worst-case scenarios (say, refusing to raise the debt ceiling) would achieve, and whatever potential real damage was done to the economy could probably be undone after Jan. 1. Should Obama win, I would hope that he understands (as Brooks apparently does not) that he has a pretty good hand to play against GOP bullies.