Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 14, 2010

BROOKS AND THE 'LIMITED-BUT-ENERGETIC GOVERNMENT TRADITION'.... In his speech in Ohio last week, President Obama tried to explain that the underlying cause of American progress can be entirely non-partisan. Democrats made Social Security, the minimum wage, the GI Bill, Medicare, civil rights, workers' rights, and women's rights a reality, but "we also recognize that throughout our history, there has been a noble Republican vision ... of what this country can be."

The president noted that it was Lincoln who used the power of the federal government to set up the first land-grant colleges and launch the transcontinental railroad; it was Teddy Roosevelt who broke up monopolies; it was Dwight Eisenhower who built the Interstate Highway System; and it was Ronald Reagan who worked with Democrats to help save Social Security for future generations.

These Republicans, Obama said, "were serious leaders for serious times." The implication was subtle -- we're facing serious times, but today's Republicans aren't capable of serious leadership.

David Brooks explores a similar point in his column today, suggesting that the Republican vision of the American tradition is overly narrow and "oversimplified" to the point of being "dangerous."

The fact is, the American story is not just the story of limited governments; it is the story of limited but energetic governments that used aggressive federal power to promote growth and social mobility. George Washington used industrial policy, trade policy and federal research dollars to build a manufacturing economy alongside the agricultural one. The Whig Party used federal dollars to promote a development project called the American System.

Abraham Lincoln supported state-sponsored banks to encourage development, lavish infrastructure projects, increased spending on public education. Franklin Roosevelt provided basic security so people were freer to move and dare. The Republican sponsors of welfare reform increased regulations and government spending -- demanding work in exchange for dollars.

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire -- a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn't build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn't.

If the current Republican Party regards every new bit of government action as a step on the road to serfdom, then the party will be taking this long, mainstream American tradition and exiling it from the G.O.P.

I find this more than a little compelling, at least in its description of the contemporary GOP worldview. The Republican ideology of the Obama era is mindless and reflexive -- taxes are always bad, government is always bad, regulations are always bad. How these policies affect families, consumers, the economy, and American competitiveness are deemed hopelessly irrelevant.*

It seems hard to imagine now, but modest, occasional tax increases were, at one time, something Republicans would grudgingly accept as a necessary evil. The GOP doesn't like to talk about it, but Reagan, for example, was in office for eight years, and he raised taxes in seven of them. It seems fairly obvious that nearly all of the GOP landmark successes on using the power of the federal government to promote the general welfare would be rejected by the Republicans of 2010.

The country still needs government to play a role in shaping the nation's future. The country still needs taxes to go up at some point to help pay our bills. The country still faces challenges, Brooks noted, that "can't be addressed simply by getting government out of the way."

The column concluded, "If all government action is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think. A pall of dogmatism will settle over the right."

It's an important point, which I suspect is too late.

* edited slightly for clarity

Steve Benen 1:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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Comments

Apparently Brooks is pall-blind, as the pall of dogmatism settled over the right a loooooooooong time ago.

Posted by: ManOutOfTime on September 14, 2010 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

I wouldn't be bringing up the Lincoln if I were a Republican running down here in Alabama.

Posted by: martin on September 14, 2010 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks is clearly right, previous administrations were far more activist, and that's what created this country. Moreover, it is this reflexive "if you are for it, we are against it" attitude on the part of the GOP that is so destructive today.

Once Lindsay Graham understood this and saw that the GOP was on the wrong side of climate change, gay rights and immigration,. But he had to placate the zombies on the extreme right and gave it up.

This mindless strain in parts of the GOP has been there for a long time, though, since the Civil War and then was fueled by the turn-of-the-20th-century immigration, and then the end of the Cold War when the GOP was temporarily without an enemy.

Posted by: Mimikatz on September 14, 2010 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

i'm assuming that there's a new round on brooks = rino comments being posted in greater wingnuttopia as i type....

Posted by: dj spellchecka on September 14, 2010 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Very soon the Republican party will be small enough that we can drown it in a bathtub.

Posted by: rusty chainsaw on September 14, 2010 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

These Republicans, Obama said, "were serious leaders for serious times."

These republicans, were liberals.

Posted by: jharp on September 14, 2010 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

Like jharp says, there used to be liberal Republicans. There even used to be conservative Republicans who wanted federal policy to be conservative; think of Jack Kemp.

But the current crop of Republicans basically doesn't believe in policy, because all policy is bad, because all government is bad, so the only answer the government can ever provide for any problem is "tax cuts for people like me, pain for people not like me."

So we've ended up with the Policy Party, which is the Democrats -- both liberal and conservative -- and the Do Nothing Party. Anyone who wants the government to do anything, even to bring conservative principles to a negotiation with liberal principles and hash out areas of consensus, even when painful, is being chased out of the Republican party. At this point they're not just conservative, they nullify.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on September 14, 2010 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I see the Republican obstruction/craziness as linked and part of the same strategy. This, very much like Obama's campaign, is bringing tons of new/infrequent (and mostly low-information) voters. They are relying on taking control of Congress and hoping that, during their time in control, the economy magically improves. Remember, to them, this is just the down portion of the business cycle, exacerbated by the Democrat's "socialism" (I put that in quotes because the R leaders do not really believe that - it just rouses the rabble).

Once in control, they will tone down the crazy, implement somewhat more sane policies, which the Dems will go along with because they are more interested in politics as a means to an end, whereas the Reps use politics as the end - winning at all costs.

From there, they will say "See - Democrats cannot govern. We improved the economy." and use that in the 2012 election.

Posted by: spacefish on September 14, 2010 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

I like the analogy to fire, since Republithugs have now gone way beyond just wanting to take us back the the 1950's, and are aiming to vault us back to the Stone Age.

Posted by: dcxsusie on September 14, 2010 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Steve gives Brooks much too much credit. Brooks says that his admiration for Ryan and Arthur Brooks is "unbound." That discredits Brooks right there. Ryan is a charatan who throws around numbers that are easily debunked, and just wants to starve the beast like all of them.

Brooks is no better. This is a typical Brooks column where he poses as the "reasonable" one between the poles of Ryan's too limited government and Obama's supposedly too activist government. He cheered on all of the terrible Republican policies and is no more centrist than all except the true crazies of Congress.

Posted by: Upper West on September 14, 2010 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

The implication was subtle -- we're facing serious times, but today's Republicans aren't capable of serious leadership.

Problem: subtle won't cut it w/the average American. The average American needs something pounded into their head w/a 2x4 before s/he begins to understand it.

The Dems overestimate the intelligence of the US voter; the GOP underestimates it. And you've heard the one about how one never loses money by underestimating the US public; it also goes for elections.

The Dems can remember KISS- Keep It Simple, Stupid- or they can KISS their control of both houses goodbye.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on September 14, 2010 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, Bobo begins his slow crawl back toward the mainstream! Loss of relevance is a powerful motivator. lol!

Posted by: Russell Aboard M/V Sunshine on September 14, 2010 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

it was Ronald Reagan who worked with Democrats to help save Social Security for future generations

Really? Ronald Reagan saved Social Security? And all this time I thought that Reagan was just complicit in the attempt to raid it.

There are two intellectually honest ways to look at the Social Security surplus:

(1) The U.S. Treasury bonds held by the SS trust fund must be repaid and the trust fund is not remotely close to going broke. People like Alan Simpson who state otherwise should be fought emphatically.

(2) The U.S. Treasury bonds held by the SS trust do not need to be repaid. Accordingly, Reagan's plan to increase FICA taxes in order to build up a large surplus were a terrible idea and the middle class has just gotten screwed for the past 20 years.

However, Obama has proven that he has a third way of looking at the surpluses:

(3) The U.S. Treasury bonds held by the SS trust do not need to be repaid, but they did create an awesome slush fund for wealthy Americans. Repayment of the bonds should be discouraged by convincing Americans to "tighten their belts" and accept reductions in benefits.

Posted by: square1 on September 14, 2010 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

"If all government action proposed by Democrats is automatically dismissed as quasi socialist, then there is no need to think"

Fixed.

And today's Republicans rejected the notion of having to "think" a LONG time ago....

Posted by: Jay C on September 14, 2010 at 4:13 PM | PERMALINK

Brooks is a conservative in the sense that he wants government limited enough so that the rich can rule the nation. He just resents that the republican party has been taken over by anti-intellectuals. He's a conservative intellectual snob, who can't stand the fact that the likes of Palin are actually influential in his party.

I've been reading Livy. Many interesting parallels can be drawn between the early Roman Republic and now.

Posted by: Tim H on September 14, 2010 at 4:39 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans are NOT anti-government. They want a strong government to do what they want it to do and blame government when it doesn't do what it wants it to do. They love corporate subsidies, a big spending military, laws that favor the powerful, intrusive meddling in personal lives....

Posted by: tomb on September 14, 2010 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

David Brooks talks out of both sides of his mouth at once. Last year on the NewsHour, he said the New Deal was a total and singular outlier in American history. Now he acknowledges all the other instances when government was found to play a productive role in the American economy. You can't trust anything these people say.

Posted by: Robert Abbott on September 14, 2010 at 6:26 PM | PERMALINK

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire -- a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control.

Of course the only time the fire ever got out of control was when Republicans were waving the torch. They see it as a useful tool to burn down the country they are traitors to.

Posted by: TCinLA on September 15, 2010 at 1:25 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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