David Brooks Has a Deal for President Obama

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After last week’s debacle, where he got hammered for claiming that Barack Obama had no plan to replace the sequester, David Brooks says today that “Humiliation is a good teacher.” This means that in this week’s column we get a glimpse of the good Brooks.

And the thing is, when Brooks is good, he can be genuinely interesting. Today he goes beyond the sequester to tell us what kind of grand bargain he wishes Obama would fight for. Here it is:

My dream Obama would nurture investment in three ways. First, he would take spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to the young and the struggling. He would build on the means-testing Medicare idea that Yuval Levin described recently in The Times. Older people with higher lifetime earnings would have fewer benefits, and they wouldn’t kick in until age 70. That money could be used to reduce our children’s debt burden and to fund early education, community colleges, research and infrastructure projects.

….Second, Obama could nurture investment by starting a debate on the sort of consumption tax plan Michael Graetz describes in his book “100 Million Unnecessary Returns”: Enact a value-added tax, use money from that tax to finance an income tax exemption of $100,000, cut the corporate tax rate to 15 percent, replace the earned-income tax credit with payroll tax relief and debit cards.

….Third, Obama could talk obsessively about family structure and social repair.

You know what? I’d mostly support this. The devil is in the details, of course, and if Brooks and I really got into the weeds we’d end up disagreeing about a lot. Still, if something like this deal were on the table, I’d probably take it. I’d trade lower benefits for well-off retirees for universal pre-K. A progressive VAT on income up to $100,000 might be a good idea if the system as a whole raised more revenue and were at least as progressive as the current one. And although I don’t think presidential yakking really does much good, I’d be perfectly happy to shine the White House spotlight on family structure and social repair (even if I’m not entirely sure what Brooks means by this).

But how do we get there? Brooks thinks it would be hard to get liberals on board with this, and he’s probably right about that. But that’s hardly worth worrying about, since conservatives would be loudly and adamantly dead set against every single aspect of his proposal. They don’t want universal pre-K; they don’t want to spend more on a bunch of lefty universities; they don’t really care about infrastructure; and they don’t want a VAT. Aside from the yakking, which I suppose they’d support as long it was an excuse to decry liberal decadence, there’s simply nothing about this deal they’d support.

If there were a Republican version of the DLC, ideas like this might have a place to gain a toehold. Until then, though, conservative reformer types like Brooks, David Frum, and Ross Douthat simply aren’t talking to anyone. The actual existing Republican Party is just flatly uninterested in their ideas. Unfortunately, the GOP has almost completely purged the centrist impulse that led Democrats to start up the DLC in the 80s, so it’s not clear where one would come from on the right. Maybe that’s something Brooks could take up in a future column.

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