David Brooks, in his role of The New York Times’ reasonable conservative columnist, showed again today that he’s just playing a role. In assessing the results and reasoning behind the Bush administration’s tax cuts, he writes:
Their first answer, not surprisingly, is that you have to understand the reality that confronted them when they took office in 2001. Business leaders were calling in to say that economic activity was falling off a cliff. The dot-com bubble was over, manufacturing was getting hit, business confidence was plummeting. Before it became a general concern in the papers, administration folks were worrying that the U.S. might go through a Japanese-style stagnation. Deflation was an unlikely but scary possibility.
They decided to do what was necessary to head off any immediate catastrophe. As Stephen Friedman, director of the National Economic Council, sums it up, “We didn't want to err on the light side when it comes to stimulus.” Hence, the large tax cuts.
Brooks’ aw-shucks pose ignores that there were three rounds of tax cuts. It also, improbably, tries to suggest he isn’t aware that the tax cuts were planned long before Bush took office and that there were no circumstances in which tax cuts wouldn’t have been proposed. (I’m looking at a clipping from a Jan. 6, 2000, Washington Post that ran under the heading “Campaign 2000.” The lead of the story, by Terry M. Neal, says: “Confronted with an unexpectedly strong challenge from Arizona Sen. John McCain, George W. Bush has narrowed his message almost exclusively to the need for a broad-based tax cut.” So it wasn’t calls to the White House that sparked the idea to cut taxes, although calls to the Times could spark the idea to cut the disingenuous Brooks.)
It was my intention to post solely on this topic today, but I had the misfortune to visit Talking Points Memo to find, tragically, a far better posting than I could do on this very topic. So I may as well refer you to the Memo and wander on a bit to a new thought:
How, exactly, does the extravagantly incompetent Bush administration get away with this stuff? Their bluff on tax cuts has been called several times, in prominent places and by prominent voices, including:
By The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne, who noted on Jan. 11, 2000, that Bush “can’t imagine circumstances in which he wouldn’t cut taxes ... After a few economic cycles, the government wouldn’t have a dime. Maybe that’s the point.”
By the Financial Times in 2003, in its much-quoted indictment that “The lunatics are now in charge of the asylum ... a fiscal crisis offers the tantalizing prospect of forcing [social services] cuts through the back door.”
By New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on May 27, 2003, when he notes the cost of the tax cuts “are so large that the nation can’t possibly afford it while keeping its other promises ... the people now running America aren’t conservatives: they’re radicals who want to do away with the social and economic system we have, and the fiscal crisis they are concocting may give them the excuse they need.”
It is astounding that Brooks has the guts to pass on the Bush administration line without pause or qualification. But it is more astounding that the Bush administration can speak it at all, and that’s not Brooks’ fault. It’s ours.