David Brooks is so gosh-darned cute when he tries to explain Republicans to Democrats. Brooks guesses he’d say “Republicans don’t have an illness; they have a viewpoint.” You see, many of them have concluded the welfare-state model is in its death throes, gradually following the European death spiral:
This is the source of Republican extremism: the conviction that the governing model is obsolete. It needs replacing.
Democrats have had trouble grasping the Republican diagnosis because they don’t have the same sense that the current model is collapsing around them. In his speech in Cleveland on Thursday, President Obama offered an entirely different account of where we are. In the Obama version, the welfare-state model was serving America well until it was distorted a decade ago by a Republican Party intent on serving the rich and shortchanging the middle class.
In his speech, Obama didn’t vow to reform the current governing model but to rebalance it. The rich would pay a little more and everyone else would get a little more. He’d “double down” on clean energy, revive the Grand Bargain from last summer’s budget talks, invest in infrastructure, job training and basic research.
However, in 2009, President Barack Obama acknowledged that our current deficit spending is “unsustainable.” White House Budget Director Peter Orszag echoed the warning that our large federal deficits are “serious and ultimately unsustainable.” That assessment was shared by the Government Accountability Office.
In 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke (nominated by George W. Bush, renominated by Obama) said the US economy continues a slow, painful recovery, but Congress must prepare to address an “unsustainable” level of debt in the federal budget. Doug Elmendorf, the head of the Congressional Budget Office said our fiscal path is “unsustainable” and the problem “cannot be solved through minor tinkering.” The co-chairmen of President Obama’s debt and deficit commission offer an ominous assessment of the nation’s fiscal future, with fmr Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles calling current budgetary trends a cancer “that will destroy the country from within” unless checked by tough action in Washington. And fmr Clinton Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger C. Altman co-authored a paper with Richard N. Haass for the Council on Foreign Relations summarized in part as follows:
The U.S. government is incurring debt at a historically unprecedented and ultimately unsustainable rate. The Congressional Budget Office projects that within ten years, federal debt could reach 90 percent of GDP, and even this estimate is probably too optimistic given the low rates of economic growth that the United States is experiencing and likely to see for years to come. The latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff paper comes closer to the mark by projecting that federal debt could equal total GDP as soon as 2015. These levels approximate the relative indebtedness of Greece and Italy today. Leaving aside the period during and immediately after World War II, the United States has not been so indebted since recordkeeping began, in 1792.
In 2011, the International Monetary Fund again warned that the US debt burden is perilously unsustainable. In 2012, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Senate that President Obama’s budget entails an “unsustainable” course for entitlement spending and interest payments on national debt.
The irony, if any, is that Obama’s 2009 comments focused on the problem of “health care costs,” by which he meant government health care costs. He marketed Obamacare as a way to bend the cost curve down. And yet Geithner says our entitlement spending remains unsustainable. However did that happen?
The actuary’s office at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services already projects health care spending will be $478 billion higher over the next decade than it would have otherwise been had no law been passed. Moreover, the money going to expand coverage cannot be used to cut the debt. Based on the most recent annual report from the Trustees of the Medicare program, a side report from trustee Charles Blahous (on the double-counting issue) and non-partisan Medicare actuary Richard Foster’s “Statement of Actuarial Opinion,” it is apparent that Medicare, which is already running a cash-flow deficit, will go bankrupt in 2016 or sooner. Indeed, Foster also thinks the savings required by Obamacare “will not be viable in the long range.” (And yet the Grand Bargaineers of the world want to keep it. Center-left elites love the rule of experts, until experts deliver them bad news.)
Meanwhile, outside the ranks of of current and former high-ranking government officials, who thinks this way? There may be no man who has written more about the death of the “blue social model” than Walter Russell Mead, a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. However, the team photo would have to include demographer Joel Kotkin, a Democrat who voted for CA Gov. Jerry Brown, but nevertheless worries America could end up like California or Spain and Greece.
In short, contra Brooks, “extremism” is not simply a Republican viewpoint. It is the viewpoint of the Obama administration (as opposed to the Obama reelect effort). It is the view of the Fed chairman. It is the view of the CBO, the GAO and the IMF. It is the view of Medicare’s trustees and actuary. It is the view of Democratic thinkers. It is even the view of the Grand Bargaineers at whose altar people like Brooks worship.
If rank-and-file Democrats do not have the sense the current model is collapsing, it is because people like Brooks won’t tell them how broad the consensus is that federal entitlements will soon do to the federal budget what state employees’ pension and health benefits are doing to state budgets. After all, the problem for the Grand Bargaineers and their fellow travelers is that they won’t get the center-left solution they want unless they pretend the coming fiscal crunch is merely a Republican viewpoint — and an extreme one.