Opinion: David Brooks, the debt ceiling and the new normal for the GOP

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Now that New York Times columnist David Brooks has called on congressional Republicans to compromise, will he lose his conservative card?

Brooks’ July 4 column called on the GOP in Washington to declare its independence from no-new-taxes zealots (without naming any in particular) and seize the opportunity that has emerged in the talks over raising the federal debt ceiling. In Brooks’ opinion, a ‘normal Republican Party’ would eagerly agree to eliminate some tax breaks, loopholes and exemptions in exchange for cutting trillions of dollars in federal spending. But this may not be a normal GOP, Brooks writes, because its ranks have been ‘infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.’

It’s strong stuff, and it gets stronger:

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.


Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.


Every party has its factions, and it’s not surprising when those associated with a party’s establishment (e.g., Brooks) collide with its upstarts (e.g., tea party aficionados). For the latter, the fight over the debt ceiling is a rare moment of real leverage, and they want to use it to make a significant difference in the size and scope of government. The former may share that goal, but not the take-no-prisoners ethos.

Much of the debt-ceiling debate has been hyperventilating, however, and Brooks’ column probably falls into that category as well. President Obama just announced that he’ll be meeting with congressional leaders again Thursday to seek a deal. The denoument of this movie, I suspect, will look a lot like the ending to Washington’s last budget drama, a dispute over funding for fiscal 2011 that almost shut down ‘non-essential’ federal offices and services. Republicans and Democrats will agree on a package that slows the growth of spending while eliminating a few tax breaks. The result will narrow the government’s budget gap, but won’t solve it. And the two sides will live to fight again another day.

As for Brooks, he’ll probably spend a few weeks fielding criticism from people who say he’s not really a conservative. But then, he’s been there before.


Borrowing and spending the GOP way

Stop playing chicken with the debt ceiling

McManus: Debt-limit delay in the real world

-- Jon Healey