*Mushy, meaningless moderation

MUSHY, MEANINGLESS MODERATION…. During last year’s presidential campaign, President Obama presented voters with his vision of fundamentally changing the way the federal government does business. He won, and his vision is reflected in his first budget outline to Congress.

David Brooks is “sympathetic” to the president’s ambitions, and “likes” Obama’s ideas for investment, but opposes the budget anyway. Apparently, it’s not “moderate” enough.

Reading his very frustrating column, it seems clear that Brooks would be far more inclined to support the administration if only the president would tackle crises one at time, instead of addressing multiple challenges at the same time: “There is evidence of a party swept up in its own revolutionary fervor — caught up in the self-flattering belief that history has called upon it to solve all problems at once.”

The notion that multiple problems — healthcare, energy, education, infrastructure, economic growth — may be inter-connected seems to elude Brooks entirely.

The U.S. has never been a society riven by class resentment. Yet the Obama budget is predicated on a class divide. The president issued a read-my-lips pledge that no new burdens will fall on 95 percent of the American people. All the costs will be borne by the rich and all benefits redistributed downward.

Please. Not only is the Obama tax plan identical to the one endorsed by the electorate, but the top rate will simply return to the level it was at when the economy was strong.

The U.S. has always had vibrant neighborhood associations. But in its very first budget, the Obama administration raises the cost of charitable giving. It punishes civic activism and expands state intervention.

This is silly. There are already limits on charitable deductions for the wealthy; the administration would raise them slightly higher. This is a sound approach to progressive taxation; the money would be invested in a stronger safety net; and yet Brooks suggests “neighborhood associations” would somehow be at risk. It’s nonsense.

Those of us in the moderate tradition — the Hamiltonian tradition that believes in limited but energetic government — thus find ourselves facing a void. We moderates are going to have to assert ourselves. We’re going to have to take a centrist tendency that has been politically feckless and intellectually vapid and turn it into an influential force.

It is, in other words, time for moderation for moderation’s sake. There’s precious little in Brooks’ “manifesto” about problem solving, or even criticism of the president’s policy agenda. The NYT columnist simply wants to go slow for the sake of going slow, pursuing incremental changes for the same of incrementalism. It’s not so much a philosophy or approach to governing, so much as it’s a desire to drive with one foot on the brake.

Ed Kilgore, who has a terrific response, put it this way: “The ‘moderation’ Brooks is championing seems to represent little more than an instinctive reaction against any coherent plan of action, and a horror of following through with the logic of progressive — and actually, ‘moderate’ — analysis of why the economy has collapsed and what, specifically, needs to be done to revive the country.”

What’s more, Joe Klein argues that Brooks’ approaches also lacks context: “We are at the end of a 30-year period of radical conservatism, a period so right-wing that many of those now considered ‘liberals’ — like, say, Barack Obama — would be seen as moderate pantywaists in the great sweep of modern political history. The past 30 years have been such a violent departure from the norm, such a profound destruction of the basic functions of government, that a major rectification is called for now — in rebalancing the system of taxation toward progressivity, in rebuilding the infrastructure of the country, not just physically, but also socially and intellectually. So it’s not surprising that the President would feel the need to move on all fronts, rather than prioritizing, as Brooks would want…. In almost every case, Obama has chosen a moderate path of government activism.”