Saturday, January 1, 2011

Mr. Brooks Goes To Washington

Unlike so many of my progressive brethren, I do occasionally check out what responsible conservatives are saying these days. There aren’t many left, so, thankfully, my task is not that difficult. One of the few I make it a point to read is David Brooks. While I tend to disagree with a lot of Brooks’ viewpoints, I do remain encouraged that there are conservatives out there who aren’t hate-filled fear mongers or just flat out crazy. Times being what they are, I have to take my comfort where I can find it.

In a op-ed piece in The New York Times, titled “Bigger is Easier,” Brooks not only manages to make some salient points, he may have inadvertently hit the nail on the head as it were and underscored the Obama Administration’s political strategy for the next two years. Rather than look for small compromises in the middle, which is what most presidents would seek, Brooks believes that it would be better for Obama to think outside the box. “In a polarized country, it may be easier to push through big change by marrying the Left and the Right than by relying upon an unfortunately weak vital Center.” Brooks’ point? Give each side something it craves – a pacifier as it were – grab back the mojo he lost in the midterms and, in the process, regain the Center he so desperately needs to get reelected.

“To get the Left excited, Obama might offer an activist growth agenda. This would involve spending more on infrastructure, research and job training — the basic things he has always talked about. But it also would mean going further and embracing industrial policy.

“To get the Right excited, he needs to offer fundamental welfare state reform. So far, most efforts to avert national bankruptcy have involved controlling spending but keeping the basic structure of the safety net intact.”

Obviously there are risks involved in adopting this strategy, but politics is a risky business. True, he has already pissed off his base with the tax cut deal, and the far Right has been going out of its way to blast him at every opportunity – expect more of the same, only twice as insufferable. But playing it safe hasn’t worked so far; if anything it has embolden his opponents and left many independents wondering whether he is up to the challenge of actually governing. The latest deal he struck with Republican leaders, which was heralded by many political pundits, while at the same time being assailed by the far Right and far Left, has at least temporarily restored some of the wind beneath his wings. The recent bump in his opinion polls suggests his bravado has struck a cord with the electorate.

I think Brooks is on to something here. “Over the next months, the parties will fight over health care repeal and the rest. But while that’s going on, it should be possible to build momentum and trust by working on corporate tax reform, individual tax reform, Social Security reform and other things. These issues are hard because they involve taking on powerful special interests. But at this moment in history, that’s exactly what voters want to see their leaders doing together.”

The real question is whether Obama has the stomach to follow through and “go long” as they say in football. Not only do I think he does, but look for his State of the Union address to incorporate initiatives that will both challenge and pique both flanks of the political spectrum; he will “violate some taboos, on right and left, to give people a sense that everything is now up for discussion.” The hardest part won’t be the Right – they hate him anyway so there won’t be any love loss to worry about; it’ll be progressives who will squawk the loudest as they demand that lines be drawn in the sand. Obama will have to be resolute against a base, which each day grows more wary of his willingness to seek consensus. How well he does against his own party will go a long way towards determining whether or not he can get anything accomplished at all, much less get reelected.

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions; most of them go bust within the first month of the year anyway. But this is one resolution I’m willing to go out on a limb and make. The President Obama that entered 2010 will not be the same President Obama that exits 2011. In deed, he’ll be hard to recognize. If you thought this was going to be a president hell bent on fighting a war of ideology and getting bogged down in dead-end skirmishes, you obviously weren’t paying attention. If anything the pragmatic tendencies he displayed throughout much of his first two years will be sprinkled with miracle grow and enhanced in a new 2.0 turbo-charged edition.

For what purpose, you ask? To woo and win the Center and show that he is above the partisan hackery that has defined Washington politics for far too long. Funny isn’t it? We thought we were voting for a transformative president two years ago. Well now we’ll get the chance to see one in action. Only time will tell if we like what we see.

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