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Collins vs. Brooks

You don't usually get this much real talk in the conversations between Gail Collins and David Brooks. Here's Collins describing her colleague's M.O.

You’re a man of good will with a fatal attraction to tidy programs. I admit it’s a very powerful approach. All during that health care debate, whenever things got impossible you could always say: “What I think they should do is pass the Wyden-Bennett Reform Plan,” and everybody would shut up and slink home to look it up on Google.

It’s a more elegant version of the Bipartisan Study Commission. Which, by the way, the Republicans recently filibustered.

We're all vulnerable to this tendency. Skeptics of messy cap-and-trade legislation get to advocate elegant carbon taxes that wouldn't survive two seconds in the legislative process. Critics of the messy health-care reform bill get to call for Wyden-Bennett or single-payer despite the absence of any evidence that either policy is remotely achievable. Folks frustrated by the budget get to look at Paul Ryan's fantastical alternative and declare it the path forward.

It would be very annoying to go to a restaurant if people insisted on ordering the dish they wanted most in the world, rather than most on the menu. The problem, of course, is that American politics doesn't offer menus, and the politicians aren't very honest about what's achievable ("I'm sorry, monsieur, but the chef does not do nationalization"). Plus, however slim the likelihood of perfect policies is, they have absolutely no chance if no one advocates for them. But for all that, there's a difference between trying to push policy in a more perfect direction and letting perfection become your excuse for never passing any policy.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 11, 2010; 9:38 AM ET
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What if the congresssional restaurant can only offer up foam foods?

Posted by: gagkk | February 11, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Can't find the quote right now, but I think it was Milton Friedman who said something about how it's not the intellectual's job to bless the politically possible, but instead to suggest the best policy option.

Posted by: jfcarro | February 11, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

This is my big problem with Brooks- he uses skillful rhetoric to obscure the fact that he's ultimately arguing to have it both ways.

That and he responds much more to style than substance. In this conversation he essentially says "I like Paul Ryan's budget" even though he doesn't support the policy. What he likes is Ryan himself, as a person. And he can't seperate that from the policy.

Posted by: Quant | February 11, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Meaning other day the commenter you high lighted when he/she advocated that 'leadership is all about making reluctant public to accept what is right for them in the longer term'; you are no longer adhering to?

Well, just kidding. You only high lighted that comment but stuck to your opinion of - you do policy which is politically palatable and many of readers (including myself) agreed to that.

This post is rehash of that in 'Brooks flavor'.

I believe fundamentally it is the core trait of successful Leadership - when to soldier on 'core principles' and when to 'adjust to the political reality'. Many more blog posts, many more comments, many more thesis and many more books - I doubt we will get any full handle on that.

Better is, sticking to the needling - policy details and merits / demerits of the same.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 11, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

I was just at a health policy conference where wonks were talking about the "parts of the bill we all agree on," which were various demos and health delivery system change provisions.

And I was like, WTF "we all agree" on these? Any one of these provisions could be controversial if someone thought it was in their interest to demagogue it. Heck, we could make medical education and licensure sound like a Stalinist plot if it suited our purposes ("the ONLY doctor you are allowed to see in America is a doctor who has attended a government-approved school, who has studied at a government-approved hospital training program, who has passed a government-approved test of how he will practice medicine, who can be reported anonymously to a panel of government-appointed bureaucrats and then have to justify to them the way he practices medicine, and who must by law prescribe ONLY government-approved medicines!").

The only reason we think we all "agree" on these things is because nobody except honest, informed, smart and well-intentioned wonks are paying attention to them!

You see this over and over again that people "from across the spectrum" "agree" on something until, you know, there's a possibility it will actually HAPPEN.

At which point people who would be losers start digging into the details of this policy s they can demagogue it, while at the same time people who have a political interest to see their opposition fail start trumpeting these demagogued points, and the bill is suddenly "controversial."

At which point someone "centrist" says, "Hey, why don't we do this other thing that none of you have paid much attention to? It seems so much less controversial..." At which point people start digging into the new thing and demagoguing it and then it's lather, rinse, repeat until we decide that it's "too hard" to address this issue and oh it's so lamentable that "Washington" can't find a "common ground, common sense" solution which is somehow, magically, not offensive to anyone.

At a certain point, reporters and politicians and observers of DC need to grow up and realize that "moderate" does not mean "uncontroversial."

Especially when, for goodness' sake, organizations and parties have figured out that they can gin up controversy over anything!

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 11, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse


I recognize the political challenges of Wyden-Bennett.

However, I struggle that you're putting it in the same bucket as single-payer or Ryan's proposal. W-B had an actual bill with bipartisan sponsorship (Lamar's comments notwithstanding), CBO scoring, think tank support (via Lewin)-- all of this "tinder" existing before Obama had even started. That feels a lot different than a fantasy idea. Given all of that, why is it the W-B proponents who are burdened with proving that it was realistic? How about the non W-B proponents proving that is wasn't? I'd love to hear some thinking on the latter. Specifically, early versions of Obama's core principles, once President, included "portability" IIRC. Then it disappeared. I'm inclined to think it was because of union opposition to W-B like proposal, moreso than a political calculus on legislative reality. What do you have to say?

Posted by: wisewon | February 11, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Even when he chronically drives me nuts with his pseudo-psychological analysis, David Brooks is by far my fav columnist at the NY Times.

If you missed him on Charlie Rose, its worth seeing (, Brooks is as pessimistic as I am about the future of governing this country.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 11, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse


You keep making the point that the only legislation that can pass both the House and the Senate has to be politically palatable, and, thus, will be moderate legislation that changes only incrementally the current status quo in the system. Yesterday, you had a post about how we elected a politician who was a skillful orator who made promises of great change and advancement for the country but that was just utopian idealism and the politics in our country don't allow for the implementation of that vision. How can it be that with all of Obama's skills and his ability to communicate with people that he can't lead the legislation at least to the Wyden-Bennett plan? Leadership has been defined as getting people to do that which they don't necessarily want to do. True, he needs Congress on board, but there's no doubt that he could have led on the issue by getting the people behind him, which would help with the polling, and, thus, provide cover for weak-kneed politicians.

Posted by: goadri | February 11, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse


The reason I read your blog every day is because of posts like this. I find your ability to look at yourself critically ("We're all vulnerable to this tendency") and assess issues based on the political as well as policy ramifications to be refreshing. I really don't find that anywhere else.

I caught myself watching cable news the other day (horrors! I blame my wife) and there you were, and you did very well (it was Rachel Maddow).

I'll keep reading!

Posted by: keilprti1 | February 11, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Until the day a health care bill passes, single payer is exactly as plausible in the legislative process as the compromised bill we currently have.

At every step, every compromise, it has been touted as moving more toward what can actually pass. And every step, every compromise, has been met with the same absolute refusal to negotiate in good faith by the opposition (from both parties).

To put it bluntly, nickle and diming the thing isn't going to work either, so you might as well swing for the fences. The opposition isn't based on policy, it's based on politics. So the solution is going to be the same no matter where you start - if there is a compromise to be had, it will be the opposition slicing a pound of flesh from the original proposal so they can go back and tout that they did so.

So for health care, if you start with single payer, a public option, or just private insurance reform, it really doesn't make a difference politically. If there's any chance of it passing at all, they all face the same mountain.

Although you could argue the more elegant, pure proposal has more of a chance to pass only because it has more pounds of flesh you can reasonably bargain with... if you start off compromised, you're giving yourself less room to further compromise.

Start with a carbon tax, and then add in some funding toward clean coal, or whatever.

Posted by: burndtdan | February 11, 2010 2:58 PM | Report abuse

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