Political Animal


April 06, 2012 1:29 PM The King of False Equivalence

By Ed Kilgore

There are few things you can rely on more firmly these days than the fact that New York Times columnist David Brooks will defend to the death the proposition that no matter what terrible things Republicans do, Democrats do them at least as much and probably more.

His latest column rebukes the president for harsh criticism of Paul Ryan’s budget, partially on specific grounds, but mostly to push Obama back into his Brooks-designated box as someone who should be having a calm exchange of deficit reduction ideas with his fellow centrist-reformer Ryan.

It is not one of Brooks’ better efforts at prestidigitation.

Much of the game is given away by this brief acknowledgement of the Ryan Budget’s shortcomings:

It should be said at the outset 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.

Since regressive tax cuts paid for by vast domestic spending cuts targeting the social safety net—which are also intended to claw back money for defense spending that the Pentagon says it doesn’t need—is sort of the essence of the Ryan Budget, this brisk treatment of its provisions as things worth quibbling about is pretty rich. Brooks is far more exercised by Obama trying to make a big deal out of these details. Quoting two very dubious sources, he announces that Ryan and Obama are actually pretty much on the same page because total spending won’t be vastly different ten years from now. So who cares if one side wants to cut Medicaid by one-third during this same ten-year time-frame, while the other is pursuing universal health coverage? Nothing to get all demagogue-y about!

Brooks gets even more upset about Obama’s claim that Ryan would “end Medicare as we know it,” wheeling out Glenn Kessler’s much-derided PolitiFact attack on Democratic arguments that it would “end” (full stop!) Medicare to dismiss the president’s characterization. Brookes also ignores the inconvenient facts that in Ryan’s proposal (a) the “option” to stay in traditional Medicare is rather barren if the funds allocated to seniors to exercise it don’t pay for the benefits, and (b) if too many seniors exercise that kind option, the numbers won’t add up at all.

But no matter. All this Brookesian tut-tutting is intended to get the column to its predestined conclusion:

As I say, I have my own problems with Ryan’s plan, which Obama identified. But 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.

These “necessary structural entitlement reforms,” mind you, include “ending Medicare as we know it,” which Brooks called a lie three paragraphs earlier, and block-granting Medicaid, which he does not deign to mention at all. As for “real tax reform,” Brooks himself says near the beginning of his column that Ryan proposed no such thing because he didn’t want to distract the very wealthy from the new benefits he is showering on them.

The really weird thing is that everyone other than Brooks—not just Obama, but Ryan himself (who has described his safety-net cuts as necessary to reduce the immoral dependence of non-tax-paying lucky duckies on public assistance) and his presidential candidate Mitt Romney—seems to agree that the Ryan Budget does indeed represent a stark difference in values, goals and programs between the two parties, and a worthy general election campaign topic.

Ah, but here’s why: Brooks wants Obama to stop all this divisiveness, and in recognition of the deficit “calamity” facing the nation, compete with Ryan by “topping him with something bigger and better.”

And there you have it: the “Other Obama” of the column’s title could restore himself to Brooks’ favor if he’d only admit his kinship with Paul Ryan and compete with him to roll back the New Deal, the Great Society, and the progressive nature of the federal tax code. Then the false equivalence of Obama and Ryan could be replaced with true equivalence, and David Brooks would be a very happy man.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • T2 on April 06, 2012 1:45 PM:

    I learned several years ago not to read David Brooks. There is nothing to be gained by it. I wish a lot of other people would come to the same conclusion.

  • Danp on April 06, 2012 1:53 PM:

    Shorter Brooks: Cutting entitlements is a serious solution, while raising taxes is a pie in the sky utopian dream that nobody should take seriously.

  • Quaker in a Basement on April 06, 2012 1:54 PM:

    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.

    Other than the iceberg problem, how was the ship's maiden voyage, Captain Smith?

  • boatboy_srq on April 06, 2012 1:55 PM:

    "[T]he 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."

    Apparently, in Bobo's thesaurus, regressive = obvious.

    Naturally, according to Bobo, the tax cuts should be better camouflaged, and the closing of the loopholes should be obvious enough for the Reichwing to whinge over. Then the regressive nature of these things would be more tolerable. Or does he mean that if the loopholes remained open then they wouldn't be too regressive?

    "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

  • low-tech cyclist on April 06, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Like George Will, David Brooks is a loathsome slug who's somehow managed to pass himself off as an intelligent, worthwhile commentator. The world would be a better place if they were both to retire.

  • rrk1 on April 06, 2012 2:06 PM:

    As T2, above, says, it doesn't pay to read elitist twit Brooks. His MO and formula are evident in every column. First he seems to concede something to progressives, then he perform various logical (maybe) contortions to finally decide the right has it right. Even if you have to contradict yourself along the way. He is as predictable as the sunrise, but much less interesting.

  • Richard on April 06, 2012 2:14 PM:

    I don't understand all of this. Why does something matter just because Brooks said it? He has been horribly wrong and predictable for many tears. Didn't everybody's grandmother tell them to "consider the source and ignore it"?

  • POed Lib on April 06, 2012 2:30 PM:

    Richard: It matters because Brooks has been given space in the NYT, and many people read him there. If you have a column in the NYT, you get gravitas even if it is totally undeserved. He is an idiot, but an influential one.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on April 06, 2012 2:41 PM:

    POed Lib
    Ye speak the truth Douhat ,... check Dowd,... check Cohen,...check . Friedman .... well sometimes too much gavitas.... check

    Truly enjoyable .. Gail Collins

  • beep52 on April 06, 2012 3:13 PM:

    I gave up on Brooks long ago, but was suckered by Ed's post. Brooks really needs to read some of the comments beneath his article. He won't but he should. A little dose of reality now and then can go a long way toward keeping a writer relevant.

  • LL on April 06, 2012 3:14 PM:

    Look. David Brooks is a gaping, weeping asshole and has been such for much, if not all, of his career. I don't even care if he's a deliberate liar, or if he's just stupid. What I do care about is that anyone would take him seriously. David Broder is not gone, Brooks has taken his place. And here I thought no-one could be more repellant that Broder.

    It's people like Brooks who are destroying this country from the inside, and bad cess on him.

  • Oh my on April 06, 2012 8:34 PM:

    Brooks' special place in the cog of the machine is to make the GOP appear as something other than f*&king insane to independent voters. Hence, the need for him to be the King of False Equivalence.

  • JackD on April 06, 2012 9:19 PM:

    Concerns about Brooks' influence because he is published in the New York Times are overwrought. Most people in this country, educated and not so, don't read the New York Times.

    As to what he writes, it seems to boil down to "I know the Republicans are batshit crazy but it really isn't polite to point that out so I think President Obama should pretend to engage in a civilized discussion of their batshit crazy arguments without pointing out that that's what they are. His failure to do this is divisive. A leader would not behave that way."

  • Subnumine on April 07, 2012 8:04 AM:

    Brooks has been the same saponaceous fool since he was spreading obfuscation for the Republicans on MacNeil-Lehrer.

    It is unfortunate that the Times cannot find an honest advocate of Republicanism, and insists on printing one anyway. But that says more about our current Repuvlicanism than anything else.

  • esaud on April 07, 2012 9:26 AM:

    T2 - For Brooks and Douthart, I really enjoy skipping their columns and going straight to the "most recommended" comments. There are a few posters there who are talented op/ed columnists on their own and quite a pleasure to read. NYT comments (sorted by "most recommended")are the best of any newspaper I have seen. I live in the Boston area and comments in the Globe and Herald are truly frightening to read. It scares me just how stupid and mean spirited right wingers can be, that there are so many people for whom "LOL LOL" is erudite commentary.