JONATHAN CHAIT FEBRUARY 18, 2011
David Brooks on President Obama's constantly delayed promises of tackling the deficit:
He started making the promise back when he was in the Senate. In “The Audacity of Hope,” published in 2006, he expressed alarm at the “mountain of debt” caused by $300 billion annual budget deficits. (They’re now $1.6 trillion.) During the presidential campaign, he pledged to put away childish things and tackle the tough budget issues.
During the transition, he said the time to act on the debt is now. “What we have done is kicked the can down the road,” he told The Washington Post. “We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further.” He said he would start a budget initiative in February 2009.
After the stimulus package passed, he and his aides said it would soon be time to turn to deficit issues. The same promise was made after health care reform.
It wasn't just made after health care reform. It was made during health care reform. Because health care reform was an attempt to cut the deficit:
Now, I understand that people like Brooks believe the Affordable Care Act won't really achieve all these savings -- the savings are too far off, they're too unrealistic, etc. But keep in mind that all those criticisms are far, far more true of proposals that Brooks and Brooks-ian figures everything love. Paul Ryan's Roadmap increases the deficit over the next decade, and then achieves large savings around 2060 by slowly ratcheting back the federal commitment to covering health care for old people, and assuming either that old people will accept this without revision, or that the free market will somehow spring up and provide radically cheaper health care. The sainted Bowles Simpson plan is just a bunch of unspecified budget caps. The Affordable Care Act actually has a comprehensive series of policy reforms to make its cuts stick.
Now, it's true that the Affordable Care Act attacks the long-term deficit problem, leaving untouched the significant medium-term deficit problem. But if you want to know why a medium-term deficit reduction plan hasn't happened yet, check out Brooks' column. He notes that Obama believes that if he leads with a deficit reduction plan of his own, it "will get stymied in the partisan circus." Republicans will call it a big government monstrosity that won't reduce the deficit.
Brooks argues against that conclusion. But look at health care reform. Obama introduced a measure of his own to attack the major driver of the long-term deficit, embracing all the cost-containment tools endorsed by bipartisan wonks. Republicans attacked it as a big government monstrosity that won't reduce the debt. It did pass Congress, but only because Democrats controlled the House and a Senate supermajority, which they don't anymore.
So just as the deficit-reducing Affordable Care Act was defined as a big government monstrosity that would increase rather than reduce the deficit, and just as Bill Clinton's 1993 budget was defined as a big government tax hiking bill that would increase rather than reduce the deficit, so too would an Obama plan to reduce the medium-term deficit. Now, I'm not completely sold on the possibility of closing a backroom deal with the GOP. But if there's one thing the last 20 years shows, it's that Democratic proposals to reduce the deficit cannot attract Republican support. Indeed, Democrats can craft such a plan with every intention of bringing long-term costs closer into line with revenues, but the result is that they'll end up being seen as soft-minded big government liberals. And chances are, the David Brooks's will be saying that, too.