The ‘third force’ Brooks has been waiting for

David Brooks seems discouraged by the era of political “stagnation,” but I have good news for him.

Each party is too weak to push its own agenda and too encased by its own cocoon to agree to a hybrid. The supercommittee failed for this reason. Members of the supercommittee actually took some brave steps outside party orthodoxy (Republicans embraced progressive tax increases, Democrats flirted with spending cuts), but these were baby steps, insufficient to change the alignment.

In normal circumstances, minority parties suffer a series of electoral defeats and then they modernize. But in the era of the two moons, the parties enjoy periodic election victories they don’t deserve, which only re-enforce their worst habits.

So it’s hard to see how we get out of this, unless some third force emerges, which wedges itself into one of the two parties, or unless we have a devastating fiscal crisis — a brutal cleansing flood, after which the sun will shine again.

Brooks gets one part of this horribly wrong. Dems on the super-committee did more than “flirt with spending cuts” — they were prepared to offer massive spending cuts, including major changes to Medicare and Social Security, in order to reach a bipartisan agreement. This is exactly what Brooks wanted them to do, and for him to ignore these details misleads his readers in a rather fundamental way.

For that matter, Brooks lauds GOP members for having “embraced progressive tax increases,” but in reality, Republicans were willing to accept some new revenue so long as taxes weren’t increased on anyone, and the offer was conditional on Democrats accepting massive tax breaks that Republicans wouldn’t even try to pay for.

Is Brooks not aware of these details? If he is, why is his description so incomplete? If not, why not?

As for parties modernizing after a series of electoral defeats, I agree with Brooks that this used to be the norm. Republicans, with the encouragement of conservative pundits, ignored the rules — after crushing defeats in 2006 and 2008, the GOP managed to become more right-wing and more reactionary, only to be rewarded by voters who overlooked Republican extremism in the 2010 midterms.

And what about the good news? Well, Brooks longs for the emergence of a “third force,” which, presumably, would shake up American politics the way the NYT columnist would like. It would focus on real national priorities over cheap political ploys; it would be willing to compromise; and it would offer a sensible vision for the future without sacrificing pragmatism.

I believe this force is generally known as the contemporary Democratic Party. Brooks may have heard of them.