JONATHAN CHAIT MARCH 16, 2010
Today David Brooks has written the platonic ideal of a David Brooks column. It is in some sense the template for nearly every David Brooks column, but it captured the major elements so perfectly that it almost feels as if every previous David Brooks column has been an homage to this one.
It begins with an interesting little sociological ditty:
Human beings, the philosophers tell us, are social animals. We emerge into the world ready to connect with mom and dad. We go through life jibbering and jabbering with each other, grouping and regrouping. When you get a crowd of people in a room, the problem is not getting them to talk to each other; the problem is getting them to shut up.
To help us in this social world, God, nature and culture have equipped us with a spirit of sympathy. We instinctively feel a tinge of pain when we observe another in pain (at least most of us do). We instinctively mimic, even to a small extent, the mood, manners, yawns and actions of the people around us.
When reading this, you were probably wondering to yourself, How is this going to lead to the reluctant conclusion the Democrats are wrong? Don't worry, Brooks has a bridge:
Political leaders have an incentive to get their followers to use the group mode of cognition, not the person-to-person. People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes. People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.
See where this is headed? No? Here you go:
Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency. That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support. Now we have pure reconciliation mixed with pure partisanship.
Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House. The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.
Oh, the humanity!
So using a majority vote procedure to pass legislation that the minority party has used strict partisan discipline into whipping its members into opposing is fundamentally about denying the humanity of the Other. It is a sad thing, and both parties sadly share some blame, but on the matter before us, the Republicans are in fact correct.
In reality, Brooks' conclusion is absurd. Does he really think that passing changes to the health care bill through reconciliation will materially effect how parties act in the future? He believes that the next Republican administration with more than 50 but fewer than 60 Senators would decline to pass a tax cut through reconciliation, but will now do so because the Democrats did it? I doubt even Karl Rove could say this with a straight face.
In any case, we don't have to guess about the future. We can look to precedent. Bill Clinton passed the signature domestic achievement of his presidency, the 1993 deficit reduction bill, through reconciliation with zero Republican votes. Sadly, Brooks was not there to explain how this denied the Republicans' humanity. In 2001, George W. Bush did get some Democrats to support his tax cut, most of them after it was a fait accompli. Why did he go through reconciliation, rather than regular order? It certainly had costs -- he had to sunset the whole thing after ten years. He did it because he didn't want to make the compromises he would have needed to get 60 votes. And if you think he would have given up the tax cut if a handful of Democrats hadn't jumped aboard, you're delusional.
So there you have it: a fun little sociological discussion followed by a reluctant, utterly incorrect defense of the current Republican position. If I ever get to glimpse Plato's world of ideal forms, this column will be there, preserved under glass.