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A Reply to David Brooks’ “Moderate Manifesto”

By Rich Van Winkle: March 4, 2009

 (The Original David Brooks Article is below)

Moderates, liberals, and conservatives should certainly oppose any “promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs” in any administration. Is that really what is going on with the Obama folks? Or, might we look a little deeper and see a major re-prioritization with plenty of sacrifices? More so, might we ask if the Obama administration is doing exactly what they said they were going to do in their campaign.

It is incredible to think of a 3.6 trillion dollar budget and a trillion dollar annual deficit. It is more incredible to think of what we would be facing if Obama had the same priorities and lack of fiscal responsibility as the Bush administration. Just imagine if this administration was as hell-bent on wasting trillions of dollars on Iraq or on throwing trillions of dollars into the financial “black hole”. If there is room to be critical of this administration it is based upon the necessity of undoing the disasters of the prior administration. Where were all these “moderates” over the last eight years?

The Obama budget is more than the sum of its parts – the recovery part, the re-alignment part, and the hope for the future part. This budget points us in a new direction; a direction of greater accountability, greater transparency, and greater honesty. Even if they fail to correct the fiasco they inherited, this administration has honored its promises and acted with consistent reasoning. What could be more moderating?

The pundits and critics have plenty of targets since this administration has chosen to attack the multitude of problems as a whole. First, they demonstrate a higher degree of understanding than the critics as our problems are highly interrelated. A few band-aids fixes are not going to keep us from bleeding to death from the massive trauma inflicted by the Bush administration. There is risk in the cure, but the circumstances clearly call for dramatic and bold action on many fronts. Anything less would be even riskier.

To call this mess “scary” would be an understatement. To fail to use our fright as a means for change would be a wasted opportunity. Americans need to be scared into change and action. Obama promised us change and criticized Bush for failing to use the 9/11 attacks as an opportunity to offer changes. If he fails to use this opportunity to promulgate change, he would be just as wasteful. Fear tactics were the primary political method of the Bush administration – even when the fear was falsely created. If nothing else, the Bush folks showed just how powerful fear can be in motivating and moving the American people.

Obama’s “social engineering” experiment is only new in its boldness and vision. It merely reflects his optimistic view of our future. Should we be critical of a president who says “Yes, we can?” instead of “No, let’s talk about it for another decade or two.” If we wanted another on-vacation long-term lame-duck president, we had that choice. The American people spoke loud and clear in the election; they want and expect change. I’m sure they would have been happy with slow incremental change had the circumstances warranted. Now, they have good cause to be nervous about the huge changes that must come to prevent disaster. They have even more reason to be nervous that the critics and pundits will delay the essential changes proposed by their president.

David Brooks worries about the concentration of power in Washington and the possibility of class resentment potentially caused by Obama’s plans. Everyone should be concerned about the politicians in Washington having too much power. We will want to stay on top of things to ensure that the temporary power required to solve this mess isn’t made permanent. But we shouldn’t fear that a president who sticks to his promises and offers consistent direction has strayed from the course we wanted. We know from experience that moderate change over the last hundred years has produced the mess we have now. For now, we need BIG changes to allow us to return to a more moderate and responsible government.

As for class resentment, it’s too late. The class resentment created by the Bush administration has to rebound. We have proven Newton wrong in this regard – what goes up to the rich doesn’t always come down. In fact, the middle class has been making the rich richer for a very long time and we have reached a new glass ceiling. Middle America is saying “ENOUGH”! They were willing to tolerate the excesses of the rich so long as everyone enjoyed prosperity. But since everyone understands that the rich are responsible for creating this mess, we expect them to pay the most for fixing it.

On that subject, we should take the brief aside and inform the resentful rich just how far beyond the limit they have gone. Blaming poor people for accepting sub-prime mortgages so that they might enjoy the long promised “owned home” shows just how stupid the rich can be. The sub-prime mortgage crisis had one single cause – greedy rich people trying to get richer through deception, fraud, and abuse. The stock market crash wasn’t caused by a lack of confidence among those who relied upon it for their retirement. It was caused by greedy rich people who went around or broke the rules while lying, cheating, and stealing. Our BIG government wasn’t caused by “transformational liberalism”. It was caused by supposedly conservative republicans supported by the greedy rich who demanded huge tax breaks while our deficit climbed beyond the clouds. If there is resentment between the classes, it is properly directed against the rich.

Mr. Brooks quotes Mr. Crook to assert that the Obama budget “contains no trace of compromise.” Without suggesting just what compromises were expected or desired, this is rather empty criticism. Similarly, calling this budget “über-partisan” is empty of meaning. One need only look at the democratic criticism of the budget to realize just how far from über-partisan this budget is. Sure, it would be wonderful if we could suddenly reduce government spending and start eating away our huge debt. But now is not the time for such and circumstances clearly necessitate a moderate approach to re-building while reducing waste – exactly what this budget hopes to achieve.

It is not moderate Americans who have a problem – it is most Americans; those with taxable incomes less than $250,000 per year. Indeed, even the rich have a problem because they won’t get richer unless the great American wealth machine is fixed and put back to work. This will require an investment by all of us, even at the risk of borrowing part of it.


A Moderate Manifesto

By DAVID BROOKS  Published: March 2, 2009

You wouldn’t know it some days, but there are moderates in this country — moderate conservatives, moderate liberals, just plain moderates. We sympathize with a lot of the things that President Obama is trying to do. We like his investments in education and energy innovation. We support health care reform that expands coverage while reducing costs.

But the Obama budget is more than just the sum of its parts. There is, entailed in it, a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs. There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.

So programs are piled on top of each other and we wind up with a gargantuan $3.6 trillion budget. We end up with deficits that, when considered realistically, are $1 trillion a year and stretch as far as the eye can see. We end up with an agenda that is unexceptional in its parts but that, when taken as a whole, represents a social-engineering experiment that is entirely new.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide. The president issued a read-my-lips pledge that no new burdens will fall on 95 percent of the American people. All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward.

The U.S. has always been a decentralized nation, skeptical of top-down planning. Yet, the current administration concentrates enormous power in Washington, while plan after plan emanates from a small group of understaffed experts.

The U.S. has always had vibrant neighborhood associations. But in its very first budget, the Obama administration raises the cost of charitable giving. It punishes civic activism and expands state intervention.

The U.S. has traditionally had a relatively limited central government. But federal spending as a share of G.D.P. is zooming from its modern norm of 20 percent to an unacknowledged level somewhere far beyond.

Those of us who consider ourselves moderates — moderate-conservative, in my case — are forced to confront the reality that Barack Obama is not who we thought he was. His words are responsible; his character is inspiring. But his actions betray a transformational liberalism that should put every centrist on notice. As Clive Crook, an Obama admirer, wrote in The Financial Times, the Obama budget “contains no trace of compromise. It makes no gesture, however small, however costless to its larger agenda, of a bipartisan approach to the great questions it addresses. It is a liberal’s dream of a new New Deal.”

Moderates now find themselves betwixt and between. On the left, there is a president who appears to be, as Crook says, “a conviction politician, a bold progressive liberal.” On the right, there are the Rush Limbaugh brigades. The only thing more scary than Obama’s experiment is the thought that it might fail and the political power will swing over to a Republican Party that is currently unfit to wield it.

Those of us in the moderate tradition — the Hamiltonian tradition that believes in limited but energetic government — thus find ourselves facing a void. We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We’re going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force.

The first task will be to block the excesses of unchecked liberalism. In the past weeks, Democrats have legislated provisions to dilute welfare reform, restrict the inflow of skilled immigrants and gut a voucher program designed for poor students. It will be up to moderates to raise the alarms against these ideological outrages.

But beyond that, moderates will have to sketch out an alternative vision. This is a vision of a nation in which we’re all in it together — in which burdens are shared broadly, rather than simply inflicted upon a small minority. This is a vision of a nation that does not try to build prosperity on a foundation of debt. This is a vision that puts competitiveness and growth first, not redistribution first.

Moderates are going to have to try to tamp down the polarizing warfare that is sure to flow from Obama’s über-partisan budget. They will have to face fiscal realities honestly and not base revenue projections on rosy scenarios of a shallow recession and robust growth next year.

They will have to take the economic crisis seriously and not use it as a cue to focus on every other problem under the sun. They’re going to have to offer an agenda that inspires confidence by its steadiness rather than shaking confidence with its hyperactivity.

If they can do that, maybe they can lure this White House back to its best self — and someday offer respite from the endless war of the extremes.










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