In the Arena

On Moderation

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David Brooks writes today as a moderate-conservative anguished by Barack Obama’s budget. I’ve known David for almost twenty years now. We’ve had many wonderful conversations, publicly and privately, over those years, and I value the quality of his mind, his decency, his essential sanity. We both consider ourselves moderates, though of different sorts.

But I disagree with him profoundly about the Obama budget–and so, I would venture, do most moderate-liberals. The budget has to be seen in 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. And it should be remembered that not all these initiatives will be acted upon at once. This is a ten-year budget. Some of the more dramatic changes, like the cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions, will be insinuated slowly and not for several years.

In almost every case, Obama has chosen a moderate path of government activism–or left the solutions deliberately vague. His ten-year, $150 billion green energy plan, for example, will mostly be accomplished through the private sector–but it does tilt government toward alternative energy sources and away from the extreme benefits lavished upon oil companies in the past, policies that reeked of crony-capitalism rather than true conservatism.

I could argue that Obama isn’t being radical enough in the areas of health care and education. His health care plan is vague, and he hasn’t quite embraced universality. He rejects left-liberal solutions like a single-payer system out of hand, but also rejects the radical moderation of the Wyden-Bennett plan that would immediately relieve corporate America of its health care burdens. I fear that the ultimate result, without strong guidance from the Administration, will be an homage to health industry lobbyists and assorted Congressional health eccentrics. His education plan is also small-c conservative, working within the current, failed-to-mediocre system of local-controlled public education and rejecting some of the more creative calls for root-and-branch reform (like taking education out of local hands, for example).

I could pick out plenty of other things about the budget I don’t like. But those are debates about particulars and they will take place in the legislative process–you’ll be hearing plenty from me about all of this in the months to come. But the question on the table now is this: Is the Obama budget the right direction to take in a macro sense. I believe that the broad thrust of the plan is not only the correct way to go and an essential rebalancing toward the center–but also, it seems to me, the path of moderation and prudence at a moment of significant national peril.

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