In his column today David Brooks tries very hard to get two of his favorite people together: Barack Obama and Paul Ryan. He writes:
President Obama and Paul Ryan are two of the smartest, most admirable and most genial men in Washington. It is sad, although not strange, that in today’s Washington they have never had a serious private conversation. The president has never invited Ryan over even for lunch.
Then, after summarizing what the two men believe, Brooks goes on to write:
Personally, I agree with Ryan on items 1-3 and with Obama on items 4 and 5, and I think an acceptable package could be put together to reconcile these views. But I do not believe there is any chance this will happen in the current climate. What’s going to happen is this: We’re going to raise the debt ceiling in a way that fudges the issues. Then we’re going to have an election featuring these rival viewpoints, and Obama will win easily.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Obama is very likely to be re-elected. Every few years, Republicans try to reform the welfare delivery systems to make them more marketlike. Every few years, voters, even Republican voters, reject this. The situation today is slightly less hostile to these ideas, but not much.
The president, meanwhile, hit the political sweet spot with his speech this week. He made a sincere call to reduce debt, which will please independents, but he did not specify any tough choices. He called for defense cuts and asked the Pentagon to find some. He called for a reduction in tax credits but didn’t point to any that should actually go. He called for reductions in Medicare costs and asked his board of technocrats to come up with some.
These are exactly the sort of vague but well-intentioned policies that have sold well in election after election. The president is not being cynical about this. He genuinely does believe that seniors and the middle class can be spared from any shared sacrifice. He really does believe in calling together teams of experts to devise proper solutions. Obama’s sincere preferences happen to be more popular.
In particular, I find Brooks’ reliance on conventional wisdom to be pretty unpersuasive. As I wrote the other week, conventional wisdom about politics and policy over the last two years has proved to be more wrong than right. Just a few areas where the CW has turned out to be a very poor guide:
A financial crisis didn’t trigger support for New Deal style programs, as the conventional wisdom said it should. Instead New Deal style expansions in government caused the rise of the tea parties who managed to mount massive or shocking victories not just in 2010 but in 2009 as well.
A massive expansion of entitlements didn’t get more popular after passage.
A huge oil spill didn’t turn Americans against oil drilling.
Independents weren’t turned off by a “radicalizing” conservative base — they supported it.
Americans didn’t rally around the president when he launched a new war.
Brooks’s analysis is absolutely spot on if the next election is going to be like previous elections and if this moment is like all previous moments. And, as a conservative, I can’t discount that possibility. But these last two years have made a lot of predictions and arguments based on how politics usually operates look awfully silly in retrospect.
Maybe it doesn’t take a genius to predict that Obama will win, but let’s at least recall that the geniuses have been wrong quite a bit of late.