One of the frustrations that comes with reading a David Brooks column about policy is that inevitably it will revolve around some ill-defined distinction between good centrism and bad knee-jerk ideology. Good centrist policy is inevitably fitted with certain descriptors, like "modest," or (depending on Brooks' mood) "bold." It will be said to encourage the private sector while steering between the ideological evils of old-fashioned big government and anti-government animus. The concept is so vague that almost any policy proposal can be defined into or out of them.
Today's column offers a perfect example. Brooks writes that Obama until now has mostly governed as a bad, big-government liberal, but can switch the emphasis to a dynamic new ideological synthesis:
I remember President Obama’s vow to move us beyond the stale old debates. Maybe he couldn’t really do that in the first phase of his presidency when he was busy responding to the economic crisis, but perhaps he can do it now in the second phase.
It occurs to me that the Obama administration has done a number of (widely neglected) things that scramble the conventional categories and that are good policy besides. The administration has championed some potentially revolutionary education reforms. It has significantly increased investments in basic research. It has promoted energy innovation and helped entrepreneurs find new battery technologies. It has invested in infrastructure — not only roads and bridges, but also information-age infrastructure like the broadband spectrum.
These accomplishments aren’t big government versus small government; they’re using government to help set a context for private sector risk-taking and community initiative. They cut through the culture war that is now brewing between the Obama administration and the business community. They also address the core anxiety now afflicting the public.
Okay, let's try to figure out which Obama policies fall into which boxes. On the bad, big government side we have the stimulus and health care reform. On the good, dynamic category-scrambling side we have education reform and investments in infrastructure and new energy technology.
Does this make any sense? Health care reform was a replica of a proposal first developed by Republicans in 1993, and more recently a bipartisan plan endorsed by Bob Dole, Howard Baker and George Mitchell. (It also takes the basic model of Mitt Romney's health care plan but adds a series of measures to encourage delivery-system reforms to reduce costs.) Doesn't that scramble categories?
Brooks also puts the stimulus in the bad, big government box. But the stimulus consisted of 40% tax cuts. And of course the concept of fiscal stimulus to respond to a liquidity trap used to be so controversial that Republicans advocated it in 2001 even when interest rates had not hit the zero bound and the substantive merits were much murkier. I also assume that Obama's financial rescue plan is part of his old, stale big government agenda. But of course that plan relied on private capital and infuriated liberals by declining to temporarily nationalize failed banks.
More confusingly still, Brooks's example of new, category-scrambling initiatives consist of direct federal spending of the sort that old-fashioned liberals have advocated for decades. Federal infrastructure spending is a perennial item on the liberal agenda. Investing in new energy technologies is what used to get derided as "industrial policy." It's government picking winners and losers. Now, it may be justified, but it's actually the most paleoliberal thing Obama has done. Even more confusingly, all these great category-scrambling ideas were financed through the bad old-fashioned big government stimulus. Education reform is a genuine example of a non-traditionally Democratic issue. But that too was financed through the stimulus and involves more central government.
So, what's left of this conceptual distinction? Not a whole lot.