April 7, 2012 · 1 Comments
By Marie Burns:
David Brooks of the New York Times feels it is his personal duty to turn Barack Obama into a David Brooks clone. A few of my readers at Reality Chex were dismayed that I was out sick yesterday as they were interested in reading my take on David Brooks’ latest attempt to make the President more like the columnist. Sometime Brooks resorts to cajoling and/or advising the President. Other times, as in yesterday’s column, Brooks ridicules and maligns Obama. Paul Krugman of the Times has noticed a trend. In a blogpost yesterday Krugman wrote, “the nature of the discussion [about Paul Ryan] has changed; instead of hearing about how wonderful Ryan is, we’re hearing about what a big meanie Obama is for saying nasty things about Ryan’s plan – a plan that is ‘imperfect’ and maybe cuts a bit, but not really that bad.”
So goes the trendy Mister Brooks. To emphasize just how badly “intelligent, judicious” Obama has devolved into “that other Obama,” Brooks claims that in his speech this week (transcript and video here) criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) budget proposal – which the House of Representatives adopted – the President “puts on his Keith Olbermann mask.” With all due respect to Mr. Olbermann – a sanctimonious, egocentric, liberal teevee host who reportedly makes life miserable for nearly everyone who works with him, and who therefore cannot hold a job – about the only thing the two men have in common in that their last names both begin with O, and have a B, an M and and A in them.
However, I am confident that the real reason Brooks has redefined Obama as Olbermann and as “that other Obama” is that he wants to reinforce the right-wing meme that Obama is an illegitimate president. Brooks wants the reader to know that whoever it is who goes around giving speeches while standing behind the presidential seal is not “the real President.” Different conservatives with different audiences delegitimize Obama in different ways. A New York Times columnist cannot be poking around vital records in Kenya and Hawaii. He must use more subtle means.
Brooks claims that President Obama’s speech about the Republican budget was “inept, ” took “the low road,” and resorted “to hoary, brain-dead clichés. He wanders so far from his true nature that he makes Mitt Romney look like Mr. Authenticity.” Brooks didn’t like the President’s “tone.” He complained that Obama “unleashed every 1980s liberal cliché in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists.” Brooks does not address the President’s remarks about the “trickle-down economics” and the Ryan “Trojan horse,” no doubt because those charges are true. Even David Stockman, the Reagan budget director who engineered the trickle-down approach, has long since denounced it as a failed policy. As for the Trojan horse charge, a budget like Ryan’s that pretends to address deficits, but actually increases them or a budget that says it will close tax loopholes but fails to identify any loopholes it would close, is most certainly a Trojan horse: a plan advertised as a gift that will actually destroy the recipients.
But let’s look at how Brooks handles Obama’s charge that the Ryan budget is an exercise in social Darwinism. Brooks’ helpfully defines social Darwinism for his readers: “Social Darwinism, by the way, was a 19th-century philosophy that held, in part, that Aryans and Northern Europeans are racially superior to brown and Mediterranean peoples.” This is not accurate, and it’s an inaccuracy that matters. It is a classic straw man: a purposeful misrepresentation of Obama’s argument.
During his speech last week, President Obama called the Ryan budget “nothing but thinly-veiled social Darwinism.” Obama has used the term before to describe Republican policies. As Jennifer Kerr of the Associated Press reported, “… in 2007…, he accused [the Bush administration] of pursuing a policy of social Darwinism that leaves every man and woman struggling. ‘It’s a strategy,’ he said, ‘that basically says government has no role to play in making sure that America is prosperous for all people and not just some.’” Last month, Prof. Robert Reich, a Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, called the Ryan budget “a social-Darwinist budget plan…. The guiding principle here? Pure social Darwinism. Reward the rich and cut off the help to anyone who needs it.”
This sent conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post to the fainting couch. She wailed that the President “labeled Ryan a race supremacist.” Where did Rubin get her idea? Gosh, she said she got it from David Brooks.
The term social Darwinism is what Reich says it is: a theory of governance that says, “Reward the rich and cut off the help to anyone who needs it.” As Bob Wright explains – accurately – in The Atlantic, the term social Darwinism was popularized in the 1940s by renowned historian Richard Hofstadter who called it a “phase in the history of conservative thought.” He wrote:
Darwinism was used to buttress the conservative outlook in two ways. The most popular catchwords of Darwinism, ‘struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest,’ when applied to the life of man in society, suggested that nature would provide that the best competitors in a competitive situation would win, and that this process would lead to continuing improvement. In itself this was not a new idea, as economists could have pointed out, but it did give the force of a natural law to the idea of competitive struggle. Secondly, the idea of development over eons brought new force to another familiar idea in conservative political theory, the conception that all sound developments must be slow and unhurried.
Although some white supremacists also used Darwinian language to “legitimize” their beliefs, these racists views were what Wright calls a “variant” of social Darwinism and not central to it. As Jennifer Kerr of the AP reported, political language expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson doesn’t think Obama was suggesting that the Ryan budget was promoting eugenics or other racist policy. I think it’s unequivocally clear he was not. He was using the term the same way he has used it before and the same way Reich used it in regard to the Ryan budget.
Brooks has re-defined the term social Darwinism for the purpose of Swiftboating President Obama. Democrats have justifiably accused Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul of fanning prejudices against African-Americans. Many Hispanics – and non-Hispanics – believe Mitt Romney’s immigration policies also are racist. So Brooks is pretending that when Obama attacked the Ryan budget – which Romney said was “marvelous” – the President was making a false charge of racism against his opponents. You neutralize your side’s weakness by portraying your opponent as a Raving Olbermann doll who makes insupportable charges against you.
Brooks next claims that President “Obama exaggerated the differences between his budget and the Ryan budget.” But Brooks’ claim surely depends on “what the meaning of ‘exaggerated’ is.” Brooks evidence? –
In 2013, according to Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University, the Ryan budget would be about 5 percent smaller than the Obama budget, and it would grow a percent or two more slowly each year. After 10 years, government would be smaller under Ryan, but, as Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute complains, it would still take up a larger share of national output than when Bill Clinton left office.
Here Brooks neglects to tell you that the think tank for which de Rugy works is the Mercatus Center, which has a home at George Mason. Who funds Mercatus? David and Charles Koch. As for the libertarian Cato Institute, the Koch brothers founded it and are now trying to take control of its product – that is, its thinking. Whether the Koch brothers pay Brooks directly or he just does their bidding gratis, the effect is the same: by disseminating Koch propaganda, David Brooks works for the Kochs, even if they’re not cutting him a paycheck.
I’ll let economist Dean Baker speak to the substance of the Brooks/Koch-funded claim that the Obama and Ryan budgets are, gosh, hardly any different. After doing the math, which he derived from Congressional Budget Office figures and projections, Baker writes, “… the Ryan-Romney budget implies a cut of between 40 and 56 percent in most categories of government spending. If David Brooks knew arithmetic, he would realize that cuts of this magnitude are a big deal and that Obama is absolutely right to make a big issue of them.” So if cutting spending in half for programs like “roads and bridges, education, medical research, the Justice Department and the federal prison system, and the national park system,” is a minor tweak, then Brooks is right when he claims President “Obama exaggerated these normal-sized differences into a Manichaean chasm.”
Brooks then complains that President Obama “imagined” the specifics of the Ryan budget. A better word would be “extrapolated.” As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post writes, “Brooks is right: Obama did offer specific cuts that don’t appear anywhere in Ryan’s budget. But only because Ryan refused to provide the specifics himself.” As Klein writes, Ryan is
… clear on the size of hit that ‘non-defense discretionary spending’ will take. But he hasn’t said how those cuts will be distributed among the programs in that part of the budget…. And so the White House, to try and make them real, made a assumption – arguably, the only assumption they could make: They assumed that when Ryan said he would cut X category of spending by Y percent, those cuts would be distributed equally among the programs in that category. And the Ryan camp – echoed here by Brooks – called foul….
Ryan wants to have it both ways: He wants to get the credit for cutting spending, but he doesn’t want to have to propose specific spending cuts. Oh, and he doesn’t want anyone to extrapolate what those cuts would be, either.
Here’s how Dana Milbank of the Washington Post put it, in easy-to-understand layman’s terms:
Ryan would cut $770 billion over 10 years from Medicaid and other health programs for the poor, compared with President Obama’s budget. He takes an additional $205 billion from Medicare, $1.6 trillion from the Obama health-care legislation and $1.9 trillion from a category simply labeled ‘other mandatory.’ Pressed to explain this magic asterisk, Ryan allowed that the bulk of those ‘other mandatory’ cuts come from food stamps, welfare, federal employee pensions and support for farmers.
Taken together, Ryan would cut spending on such programs by $5.3 trillion, much of which currently goes to the have-nots. He would then give that money to America’s haves: some $4.3 trillion in tax cuts, compared with current policies, according to Citizens for Tax Justice.
So Ryan himself acknowledges that his budget relies on drastically cutting programs to help the poor. If Brooks won’t believe Obama, shouldn’t he believe Ryan? Milbank also lets Ryan explain his “tough love” rationale for “helping” the poor by cutting benefits. Ryan, previewing his budget proposal for the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, “warned that a generous safety net ‘lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.’” Yes, indeed, I’d rather starve to death in dignity than accept food stamps.
And what about poor people who get sick? As Paul Krugman wrote yesterday,
… 14 million is the minimum number of people who would lose health insurance due to Medicaid cuts — the Urban Institute, working off the very similar plan Ryan unveiled last year, puts it at between 14 and 27 million people losing Medicaid. That’s a lot of people – and a lot of suffering. And again, bear in mind that none of this would be done to reduce the deficit – it would be done to make room for those $4.6 trillion in tax cuts, and in particular a tax cut of $240,000 a year to the average member of the one percent.
But Obama is very rude for pointing any of this out.
Brooks then attacks the president for claiming the Ryan plan “will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.” This, Brooks implies, is a well-known lie: “In 2011, when Ryan first proposed a version of this budget, Politifact, the truth-checking outfit, honored this claim with its ‘Lie of the Year’ award.”
Paul Krugman – and others – forcefully debunked PolitiFact’s analysis last year. Obviously, Brooks knows this. But forget PolitiFact. As Krugman wrote of Ryan Medicare 1.0,
Republicans voted to replace Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance — and not just that, a voucher system in which the value of the vouchers would systematically lag the cost of health care, so that there was no guarantee that seniors would even be able to afford private insurance. The new scheme would still be called “Medicare”, but it would bear little resemblance to the current system, which guarantees essential care to all seniors. How is this not an end to Medicare?
Ah, but. Brooks writes that “… the Ryan Medicare proposal has become more moderate and much better. Obama’s charge is even more groundless.” No, Obama’s charge is not “even more groundless,” but Brooks is right about one thing: Ryan has moderated his plan. Even some liberals agree. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones calls Ryan’s Medicare plan “less terrible” than Ryan Medicare 1.0. The editors of Bloomberg News (not liberals) also say that Ryan improved his plan, and they call it “the right policy.” The changes in Ryan’s plan for Medicare was largely a result of his collaboration with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who has longstanding, if unorthodox, ideas on how to abate the health insurance crisis. Bloomberg calls the Ryan-Wyden deal Ryan 2.0. The Medicare plan Ryan rolled out in his budget, and which the House approved, however, changes 2.0. As the Bloomberg editors write,
Ryan 3.0 tweaks the GDP-plus-1-percent formula [the Ryan-Wyden plan] — making it a less generous GDP plus 0.5 percent…. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, by 2030, spending on the average Medicare beneficiary would be $7,400 (in 2011 dollars) under Ryan’s plan, 14 percent lower than what would be spent under current law.
Even then, his plan rests on an unproven theory: that competing private plans will find numerous efficiencies, including better coordinated care, which will allow them to offer the same health benefits as traditional Medicare for less money. And instead of Medicare, with its considerable market power, setting provider rates and determining which procedures to cover, each plan would do the negotiating, with seniors deciding which one offers the best value.
The danger is that Ryan may be cutting costs too steeply, forcing Americans to choose from a stingier menu of options while shouldering ever-higher out-of-pocket costs. He may also be relying too heavily on seniors’ ability to make smart decisions about their insurance — often when they are frail or seriously ill.
Wyden himself opposes the direction Ryan has taken their plan:
Wyden is concerned about: (1) the budget’s treatment of Medicaid block grants, because Wyden-Ryan used Medicaid funds to help “dual eligible” retirees who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid; (2) the budget’s gradual increase of the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67; and (3) the GDP + 0.5% growth rate.
Even Ryan admits his Medicare 3.0 plans made serious changes to Ryan-Wyden: “This is not the Wyden-Ryan plan. This is the House Republican budget. We include several elements, like the traditional fee-for-service option within Medicare, but no, I’m not going to sit here and tell you this is that plan – it’s not.”
So Ryan’s budget does not “end Medicare as we know it.” It just attempts to end Medicare as we know it by weaning seniors off Medicare, or, as Brooks himself acknowledges, by “slowly phas[ing] in a premium support option.” If Ryan 3.0 works, it would do exactly what President Obama said in his speech it would do. After explaining the Ryan plan in detail, Obama concluded,
The net result is that our country will end up spending more on health care, and the only reason the government will save any money – it won’t be on our books – is because we’ve shifted it to seniors. They’ll bear more of the costs themselves. It’s a bad idea, and it will ultimately end Medicare as we know it.
In other words, Brooks and Obama agree, even if you have to be a detective to unpack Brooks, because Brooks deliberately misleads the reader into believing that Obama has misstated or overstated the case. Brooks doesn’t like Obama’s language, – specifically the phrase “end Medicare as we know it” – but he concurs with the substance.
This bring us to a report from the opinionator who best undercuts David Brooks’ criticism of President Obama. That opinion-writer is David Brooks. In his column, Brooks admits that
… the Ryan budget has some disturbing weaknesses, which Democrats are right to identify. The Ryan budget would cut too deeply into discretionary spending. This could lead to self-destructive cuts in scientific research, health care for poor kids and programs that boost social mobility. Moreover, the Ryan tax ideas are too regressive. They make tax cuts for the rich explicit while they hide any painful loophole closings that might hurt Republican donors.
So the Ryan budget is “disturbing” but Obama used the wrong “tone” in criticizing it.
In the end, Brooks’ column is just another plea for a “Grand Bargain” in which Democrats agree to massive cuts in the social safety net in exchange for a new taxes on the poor and middle-class. But to use the Ryan budget as the centerpiece of his Grand Bargain plea is hilarious, because the Ryan budget – with its massive tax cuts for the wealthy – is not a deficit reduction plan. It is a social-safety-net reduction plan, pure and simple. As Paul Krugman wrote in a column earlier this week,
… the Ryan budget is a fraud; Mr. Ryan talks loudly about the evils of debt and deficits, but his plan would actually make the deficit bigger even as it inflicted huge pain in the name of deficit reduction. But is his budget really the most fraudulent in American history? Yes, it is.
Yet here’s Brooks’ pitch, executed at the end of his mostly ridiculous wind-up:
Ryan has at least taken a big step toward an eventual fiscal solution. He’s proposed necessary structural entitlement reforms, which the Democrats are unwilling to do. He’s proposed real tax reform, which the Democrats are also unwilling to do.
The first truth is that we will have to do these big things to avoid a fiscal calamity. The second truth is there is no one party solution; there has to be a merger of respectable ideas. The third truth is that gimmicky speeches obscure the president’s best character and make it seem as if he doesn’t understand the scope of the calamity looming in front of us.
Obama shouldn’t be sniping at Ryan. He should be topping him with something bigger and better.
This is the “Obama should be more like me” pitch. Unfortunately for Brooks, the facts get in the way. As Obama outlined in his “hoary, brain-dead” speech, he already has topped Ryan with something bigger and better. The budget Obama proposed, and which the House roundly rejected, had actual details as opposed to Ryan’s promise to identify some loopholes sometime. And, as Obama said, it relies on “cuts in discretionary spending, cuts in mandatory spending, increased revenue.” As for health care, Obama said in his speech,
I’ve also put forward a detailed plan that would reform and strengthen Medicare and Medicaid. By the beginning of the next decade, it achieves the same amount of annual health savings as the plan proposed by Simpson-Bowles – the Simpson-Bowles commission, and it does so by making changes that people in my party haven’t always been comfortable with. But instead of saving money by shifting costs to seniors, like the congressional Republican plan proposes, our approach would lower the cost of health care throughout the entire system.
The President went on to enumerate some of his proposals. In his actual budget plan, Obama proposed “$4 trillion in balanced, deficit reduction so that, by 2018, we cut the deficit to less than 3 percent of GDP, stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratio, and achieve primary balance.”
Brooks suggests that Obama’s speech demonstrated that the President suffered from some terrible character flaw. Or maybe he just doesn’t understand that the federal government has a really big budget deficit. But the fact is that the President, as he says in his speech, has already adopted the middle ground. (Yes, liberals are complaining that they don’t have a dog in this hunt.) Brooks can’t acknowledge Obama’s moderate plan because Brooks’ thesis is that Ryan is a bold problem-solver and Obama is a crazed Olbermann ranter. When you can’t attack the message, attack the messenger.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com
Update: this article has been revised to include Ezra Klein’s observations about the President’s “imaginary” figures.