‘Fight Club Dems’ Gotta Fight!

Mickey Kaus Columnist
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TNR‘s Jonathan Cohn wishes columnist David Brooks would “get mad” at Republicans. Why? Well, Brooks endorses Yuval Levin’s mash-up means-testing plan that would raise the Medicare retirement age for the affluent. Cohn’s headline calls it “the conservative reform that wouldn’t screw the poor.” Cohn thinks “it’s not hard to imagine Obama endorsing a scheme like Levin’s, since, during the 2011 debate over fiscal policy … Obama was willing to embrace [a] more conservative version of the eligibility age increase.”

OK. But why should Brooks get mad at Republicans? Does he think Republicans wouldn’t accept the Levin means-testing plan, or a similar plan**? That they’re standing in the way? No. Of course not. They’d jump at it. In a twitter exchange, Cohn explained his reasoning:

Point is that Obama/Ds giving way more than Rs, who are basically giving nothing. I’d like to see Brooks et al call them out.

This seems a good window into the odd, invariably combative thinking of the media’s Obamasphere (which really does seem to track with former members of Ezra Klein’s “Journolist” group–sorry!).  It’s odd for several reasons:

a) Republicans recently acceded to $600 billion in revenue increases. “Nothing”?

b) Where is there a  rule that says the two parties have to meet halfway in between their initial bargaining positions? They may get more than that, or they may get less, depending on what leverage they have (and how realistic their initial position was). That’s negotiating.  It’s not a very powerful moral argument, or maybe not even a moral argument at all, to say “you have leverage and you aren’t giving up much.”

c)  You’d think the rule that should govern pundits is “if it’s a deal within the bounds of reason, and a net plus for the country, it’s good. If not, it’s not.”

d) There’s probably a wide range of deficit-reducing deals that meet this test. If a deal within this range cuts discretionary spending 5% or raises the same amount in taxes, that’s a small victory for one side or the other. But is it really something that should move Democrats or–in Cohn’s argument–Brookseque Republicans–to outrage or joy? Either way, it’s not life or death for the liberal project. Republicans and Democrats are fighting to move the scrimmage line a yard or two at midfield. Democrats already passed a national health care plan, for Chrissake–now that was a touchdown. To switch metaphors, we’ve had the feast. Now we’re cleaning up crumbs.

e) And isn’t it maybe a good thing for Dems if the government, for the moment, spends less and taxes less–they’ll probably need that taxing capability later, when the health care cost overrruns start to make themselves felt?

f) By these lights, the means-testing of entitlements like Medicare is a good idea in itself, for Dems, and the nation. As Jonathan Alter argued two days ago, it would preserve the major social insurance programs while leaving enough money left over to finance at least some other initiatives.

A good way to test whether this is true–whether the idea by itself is good for Democrats-is to ask yourself whether Dems would do it if they controlled both houses of the legislature and the executive branch, California style. It seems clear to me they eventually would, because they need the money. So why not do it now (when the shift can be more gradual)?

g) Cohn disagrees. He thinks the Republicans have to accede to more revenue increases:

Rs still need to give on something. … Still won’t consider revenue.

Who’s throwing up extraneous obstacles now? I mean, here is a policy shift–means-testing–that (as Cohn notes) Obama has proposed, and Republicans have proposed. It’s good for the country. Why not just do it? Why insist on a concession in another area (taxes) in order to satisfy some bogus concept of bargaining parity? Dems can always increase taxes later if when the big health care bill comes due–maybe after they’ve won control of the House.

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that pundits like Cohn (and Sargent) mainly like the fight, even if it’s a dumb fight over relatively marginal budget details. And Cohn is the best of the bunch. What does that say about the bunch?

Is it that they’re all trying to get on MSNBC?

[Note: Fight Club Dems is a Tom Maguire coinage, I think]


**–I tend to favor a straight up means-test that would simply charge the affluent more for their Medicare rather than raising their eligibility age. There’s considerable social-egalitarian value in having everyone covered at the same age–we’re all animals, we all age and die, etc. Rich people too. And Adrianna McIntyre raises some health care policy perversities that might result from Levin’s plan when it’s combined with Obamacare’s exchanges.

Mickey Kaus