January 18, 2005

Column 2005-1-18 Commentary:

Every once in a while, David Brooks decides that the Democratic Party desperately needs the benefit of his advice. Whether he does this to destroy the Democrats by misleading them or hopes merely to pull them further to the right so that the Republicans can go even further right is unclear. It's also possible that he's just a moron and honestly believes that he is giving the Democrats the best possible advice. As this column illustrates, though, the leaders of the Democratic Party should not be asking themselves "What would David Brooks do?"

Brooks begins by drawing a distinction between two types of Democrats: those inspired by Clinton and those inspired by Gingrich. The Clintonites, according to Brooks, are Democrats like Gene Sperling and Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, who are trying to come up with a compromise proposal for Social Security reform that could possibly attract bipartisan support. Brooks says, approvingly, that these politicians still have "a governing mentality -- even in the minority". The "Gingrich Democrats", on the other hand, are attempting to fight the Republicans with the same ruthlessness and discipline that the Republicans have used on them for so long and which are associated in particular with Newt Gingrich, especially during the health care fight in Clinton's first term. This is a bad idea, Brooks says: if the Democrats want to stay competitive, they must not get "caught in a cycle of negativity and oppositionism".

The first problem with this analysis is that Brooks is exaggerating the extent to which Democrats are preparing to imitate Gingrich. He states that "they [the "Gingrich Democrats"] feel that Social Security reform is to Bush what health care reform was to Clinton -- the big overreach that will allow the opposing party to deliver a devastating blow to the president", which is pretty much true, or at least proves that Brooks and I read the same liberal blogs (for instance, see this article, Hardball 101, in The New Republic). However, Brooks's assumption that this is part of a grand Democratic strategy is unwarranted. Democrats are, quite rightly, banding together to prevent any sort of Social Security reform that involves privatization from being implemented. Should the president actually come up with any reasonable programs -- for universal health insurance, for instance -- I would hope that the Democratic party would support them. Luckily for my faith in the Democratic party, no such thing is likely to happen.

Furthermore, the Clinton way that Brooks approves of is a guaranteed failure, for a reason that Brooks himself admits: the Democrats are now in the minority. They are no longer governing, which makes the "governing mentality" something of a handicap. Clinton could float proposals that might draw bipartisan support because he had the presidency, which gave him some leverage. But right now, the chances of any Democratic proposal garnering enough support to pass both the House and the Senate and override a veto by Bush are, essentially, zero, unless these proposals have such major public support that it would be very difficult politically for the Republicans to oppose them. Therefore, negotiation with the Republicans is probably pointless, even assuming any Republicans want to negotiate, or will be allowed to negotiate: Bush's idea of reaching out is offering the Democrats a chance to lie down so he can walk all over them, instead of knocking them down. In fact, such negotiation helps the Republicans, by giving them a veneer of bipartisanship which they can use to help sell their plans to the public. The Democrats will extract a handful of meaningless concessions, most of which will be removed when the Senate version of the bill is reconciled with the House version, the Republicans have another legislative triumph to boast about in the next election year, and the country continues to go straight to hell. All this could be gathered by anyone who was paying attention to what happened in the last Congress. Apparently, Brooks had other things on his mind.

The only way the Democrats can get anything that Bush does not approve of passed is to swing public opinion to their side. If polls suggest that the public prefers the Democratic approach by large enough majorities, it is likely that enough Republicans will defect to the Democrats to get a Democratic bill passed. But this requires that the Democrats be loud about the virtues of their own plan and louder about the problems inherent in the Republican one. And in the case of Social Security, it is actually counterproductive for the Democrats to trumpet their plan to save Social Security. They want to establish that Social Security is not in need of saving, that anybody who says so, including the president, is simply lying, and that privatization would not improve the problem and would actually probably make it worse (see the Daily Howler for presidential lies, There Is No Crisis for the non-existence of the crisis, and every column Paul Krugman has written for about a month for lucid explanations of what is going on). Making a big fuss about their plan for Social Security suggests that there are serious problems. Instead, once the Democrats have proved their point, they can introduce a plan which makes a few small tweaks to the system. For other issues, introducing a competing proposal right away will make more sense, as long as it is born in mind that the point is to make one's case to the public, not to come to common ground with the Republicans.

Brooks's column suggests that Democrats would be best off trying to accommodate the Republicans, too compromise when necessary and to avoid, above all, being obstructionist. Or, alternatively, to avoid above all standing up for their principles. Given that the common complaint about the Democratic party these days is that nobody knows what it stands for, this sounds like bad advice to me. Brooks justifies it by claiming that demographics are against the Democrats: there are three conservatives for every two liberals. Not only is this number unsourced, it is irrelevant. After all, the Republicans do not control 60% of the House. Bush did not get 60% of the vote in the last election. In fact, if anything, it suggests that the Democrats are doing a better job of appealing to moderates than Republicans are. His claim that a Republican can be quite conservative and still win the presidency ignores the fact that Bush ran as a moderate in 2000. Compassionate conservatism didn't last long, but Bush certainly did not present himself as the kind of far-right conservative he proved to be. As for 2004, well, let me take a leaf from Bush's book for a moment: 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, . . . . And, of course, all these arguments are rendered completely moot by the fact that the number of eligible voters who did not vote in the last election outnumbered those voting for either party.

In closing, Brooks advises the Democratic party to find a leader who will "make liberals feel uncomfortable", a piece of advice that is just as good as anything else Brooks writes in this column. I have some advice, too. It's for the New York Times, and it has to do with finding a columnist who is not a moron.