It’s a rare week in our political culture when two representative figures—one from each political persuasion—throw in the towel on their respective party leadership. Frank Rich launched his New York Magazine career with frustrated screed against Obama over the holiday followed quickly by David Brooks declaring the budget deal Republican leaders are in danger of rejecting as “the mother of all no-brainers.”
Is this simultaneous act of nauseated revolt the sign of a sea change in our politics or simply the sad end to an even sadder political discourse of denial and delusion?
The more momentous and remarked upon of the two apostasies was David Brooks’s gob-smacked column in yesterday’s New York Times. Accusing the Republican party’s current leadership of lacking “moral decency,” Brooks bewails the danger that Republican ideologues will pass up the political opportunity of a generation in favor of doctrinal purity:
If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.
A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.
By normal, Brooks must mean some Republican party of his own imagination because the real Republican party has shown little interest in restraining the growth of government or government spending over the last decade. When Republicans were in power, they presided over the expansion of nearly every aspect of government, including the runaway spending that resulted in our current collision course with the debt ceiling.
Not that the Democrats have much to be proud of here either. Frank Rich couches his long harangue as an indictment of Obama’s infatuation with elitist intellectuals like the second Committee to Save the World of Timothy Geither, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke. But his story is really an attack on Mitt Romney:
If any belief unites our polarized nation, it’s the conviction that Romney is the most transparent phony in either party, no matter how much he’s now deaccessioning hair products. It’s also been a Beltway truism that a Mormon can’t win the Republican nomination, let alone a Massachusetts governor who devised the prototype for “ObamaCare.” But that political calculus changed overnight. That this poseur could so quickly gain traction, even if evanescently, should alarm Obama.
Rich’s real frustration—gestured at in this over-long essay but never actually engaged—is the lack of a meaningful governmental effort to deal with unemployment in the US. Again and again, Rich rightly complains that jobs are absent from the national agenda. Though he overlooks the fact that our enormous military budget is America’s biggest jobs and stimulus program. (Imagine what the employment numbers would look like without the 2.4 million serving in the military on active or reserve duty let alone all the jobs created by defense contracts.)
Obama is the chief executive. It’s his fault, no one else’s, that he seems diffident about the unemployed. Each time there’s a jolt in the jobless numbers, he and his surrogates compound that profile by farcically reshuffling the same clichés, from “stuck in a ditch” to “headwinds” (first used by Geithner in March 2009—retire it already!) to “bumps in the road.” It’s true the administration has caught few breaks and the headwinds have been strong, but voters have long since tuned out this monotonous apologia. The White House’s repeated argument that the stimulus saved as many as 3 million jobs, accurate though it may be, is another nonstarter when 14 million Americans are looking for work.
At the end of all of Rich’s scalp-grabbing frustration, there’s not much to hold on to. Any talk of investing in infrastructure and pursuing public works projects that might soak up some of the civilian unemployed while repairing the nation’s physical plant brings us right back to the deficit debate. Without a Republican party willing to deal on spending cuts and tax increases, there is no room to shift the debate toward structural unemployment which is surely going to be a persistent issue for much of the next decade.
Indeed, the only lesson to be learned from this mutual disgust with the political process is that government isn’t going to be the answer any time soon. Despite Rich’s worst fears, there’s little to distinguish Mitt Romney from Obama in practical terms. Both lack the political support to substantially change what’s hampering job growth. Neither has much interest in seriously reforming the financial system.
It won’t be until voters give up on the idea that the economy can be managed by the Fed that any meaningful movement will arise. By that time, the locus of the world economy will most likely have moved beyond the control of the US populace, if it hasn’t already.
The Mother of All No-Brainers
by David Brooks
July 5, 2011; New York Times
Obama’s Original Sin
By Frank Rich
July 4, 2011; New York Magazine