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The Good, Bad, And Ugly Of Brooks’s 'moderate Manifesto'

David Brooks's "Moderate Manifesto" has attracted much attention, and deservedly so. It is a cri de coeur from a respected commentator who cannot stomach what conservatism has become, but who also cannot embrace what he calls the "transformational liberalism" of the Obama administration.

Brooks' critique is fiscal, ideological, and moral--so let's cover the fiscal aspects first. While he does not object to deficit spending designed to counter a steep economic downturn, he won't accept annual deficits of more than $1 trillion stretching "as far as the eye can see." Although this number is considerably more pessimistic than the administration's numbers, it may well be more accurate. In a recent analysis, Brookings' William Gale and UC Berkeley's Alan Auerbach conclude that "under what we view as optimistic assumptions, the deficit is projected to average at least $1 trillion per year for the 10 years after 2009, even if the economy returns to full employment and the stimulus package is allowed to expire in two years." In their view, the longer-run picture is even bleaker: Stabilizing the debt/GDP ratio would require us to close a fiscal gap at between seven and nine percent of GDP, between $1 trillion and $1.3 trillion in current dollars. 

Of course, we can't reliably predict the long-term fiscal future. But it does seem likely that the administration's budget would entail an indefinite increase in the debt/GDP ratio, as well as a significant increase in the share of GDP the federal government commands. So the real questions are: 1) whether we can keep on borrowing so much at rates we can afford and the economy can sustain, and 2) whether the benefits of this path exceed its costs. Both of these are matters about which well-informed people can reasonably differ. But one thing is clear at the outset: There is no realistic scenario for the next decade that does not see federal spending rising above what Brooks calls its "modern norm" of 20 percent. The question is not whether, but how much. 

On the ideological front, Brooks criticizes the administration for fostering (or at least assuming) class resentment and for weakening our traditions of decentralization and vibrant voluntary associations. I'll confess I don't understand why tax cuts tilted toward the wealthy represent impartial concern for the common good, while efforts to rebalance the code in favor of middle and working class families amount to class warfare. As for Brooks' other criticisms, there is no question that the Obama budget contemplates a growth of the federal government relative to both the states and civil society. This is what happened under FDR, driving the conservatives of the time to paroxysms of rage. Today's conservatives are doing what Ronald Reagan never did--namely, relitigating the merits of the New Deal. It's not clear whether Brooks intends to join them. If so, he should either argue explicitly that the New Deal was a mistake, or distinguish between today's needs and those of the 1930s. If not, it's hard to see the prima facie case against Obama's course.  

In the moral realm, Brooks accuses the administration of "fervor" and the "self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once"--in short, of recklessness and hubris. There is no doubt that Obama has proposed an ambitious agenda that refuses to choose between short-term recovery and long-term renewal. It would not have been unreasonable, or a breach of faith, for him to have concluded that the agenda on which he campaigned would have to give way, at least temporarily, to the agenda that events have forced upon him. But one can question his judgment without impugning his character. The president has worked hard not to cross that line, and those who judge him should do so as well. For all I know, Brooks may turn out to be correct, but it is much too soon, and the evidence much too scanty, to warrant such a severe judgment. 

There are some political warning lights flashing, however. The NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released today found more support for President Obama's leadership than for his policies. When people were asked what concerned them more--that the federal government would spend too much money trying to boost the economy and drive up the budget deficit, or that it would spend too little and prolong the recession--fully 61 percent chose the first option and only 29 percent the second. When people were asked whether they would be willing to pay higher taxes so that everyone can have health insurance, only 49 percent said yes, versus 66 percent when Bill Clinton launched his health care initiative in 1993. It may well be that Brooks is expressing the doubts of many of the 38 percent of Americans who identify themselves as moderates. If so, the president may find himself compelled to make the choices among competing priorities that he has thus far avoided.