David Brooks peers into his crystal ball today and predicts some infighting over the Democratic Party's agenda.
With Obama likely to win the presidency and the Democrats likely to pad their margins in Congress, Brooks expects calls for more bailouts, an economic stimulus package, plus major energy and health care reforms. That would mean a lot of government spending, Brooks says, and not everybody in the party will be so happy about it:
One the one side, liberals will argue (are already arguing) that it was deregulation and trickle-down economic policies that led us to this crisis. Fears of fiscal insolvency are overblown. Democrats should use their control of government and the economic crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make some overdue changes. Liberals will make a full-bore push for European-style economic policies.
On the other hand, the remaining moderates will argue that it was excess and debt that created this economic crisis. They will argue (are arguing) that it is perfectly legitimate to increase the deficit with stimulus programs during a recession, but that these programs need to be carefully targeted and should sunset as the crisis passes. The moderates will stress that the country still faces a ruinous insolvency crisis caused by entitlement burdens.
Interestingly, Brooks concludes that liberals will win the fight, at least until they overreach and produce a conservative backlash.
Obama will try to straddle the two camps—he seems to sympathize with both sides—but the liberals will win. Over the past decade, liberals have mounted a campaign against Robert Rubin-style economic policies, and they control the Congressional power centers. Even if he’s so inclined, it’s difficult for a president to overrule the committee chairmen of his own party. It is more difficult to do that when the president is a Washington novice and the chairmen are skilled political hands. It is most difficult when the president has no record of confronting his own party elders. It’s completely impossible when the economy is in a steep recession, and an air of economic crisis pervades the nation.
As one of those liberals who likes (some) European-style economic policies and thinks fears of fiscal insolvency are indeed overblown, I can't say I'd mind that outcome. And, in general, Brooks description of the internal party dynamics seems fair: It's pretty clear conservative Democrats will object to major parts of this agenda.
Still, I think descriptions like these tend to overlook the surprising consensus that's emerging on the Democratic side of the aisle. After all, among those who have been rejecting Robert Rubin-style economics lately have been the very people who implemented it back in the 1990s.
Rubin himself has said that government needs to do more to shore up incomes and economic security for the poor and middle-class, by strengthening labor unions and investing in stronger (read: European-style) social welfare programs. And just a few weeks ago one of Rubin's best-known and most respected allies, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, took to the op-ed pages to make the case for more government spending on infrastructure and health care reform.
That's not to say no divide exists. Summers, for example, made clear the importance of fiscal responsibility over the long run. (That's one reason he, like many of his allies, supports health care reform: As a way to get spending under control eventually.) More liberal economists and congressional representatives wouldn't agree. But at least for now, I think the divide within the Democratic Party may be smaller than most people realize, certainly within the party's intellectual class and, perhaps, among its elected representatives as well.