Monday, November 2, 2015

Defending the indefensible for fun and profit – lesson 1: tone and framing

David Brooks has come in for a lot of mockery for his latest column on Marco Rubio from commentators like Jonathan Chait (“What Should We Believe: Marco Rubio or Math?”) and Charles Pierce. Even Paul Krugman, who is required by NYT policy not to engage Brooks directly, couldn't resist pushing the envelope.

Here's the passage that seems to have inspired the most reaction.
At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

Both Krugman and Chait both draw a parallel between Brooks' signals-over-details approach and the coverage of George W. Bush sixteen years ago, then go on to criticize Rubio's details. Chait goes on at some length:

One defense of Rubio’s alleged moderation is that he would cut the top tax rate to 35 percent, as opposed to the even lower rates proposed by various other candidates and multilevel marketers posing as candidates in the GOP field. But, remember, the Bush tax cuts also cut the top tax rate to 35 percent. Bringing that rate back to that level was the subject of intense political struggle in 2001 and again in 2012 to 2013, because there is a lot of money at stake. And whereas Bush merely reduced taxes on dividends and capital gains — forms of income that overwhelmingly accrue to the very affluent — Rubio would eliminate them altogether.

Rubio does create a $2,500-per-child tax credit, which would help families if it was refundable. (Rubio’s campaign has said it would not be refundable, and thus do very little to help the poor.) Even if we assume otherwise, however, the assumption that Rubio’s tax cut helps the poor relies on the assumption that his proposals have no trade-off whatsoever. In reality, reducing federal revenues by $6 trillion over a decade would put immense pressure on the federal budget. Rubio has already promised to increase defense spending and keep Medicare and Social Security untouched for current or near-retirees, making them unavailable for budget savings within the next decade. Those programs — along with interest on the national debt, which cannot be cut — account for two thirds of the federal budget. Domestic discretionary programs, which fund things like transportation, scientific research, and the basic nuts and bolts of the federal agencies, have been cut so deeply that even many Republicans are eager to lift their caps. That means the brunt of Rubio’s fiscal pressure would come to bear on the minority of the federal budget that goes directly to the poor.

But a single passage can't really capture either the skill or the duplicity of Brooks' column. He is defending the indefensible here, not in the sense that Rubio's proposals are morally reprehensible, but in the sense that Brooks has been tasked with making a rational, wonky case for a plan where two plus two equals one here, equals seventeen there, and a couple of pages later, equals the inverse of the square root of pi. The Rubio campaign doesn't even try to hide the contradictions. They point to a Tax Foundation report to support the claim that “the largest after-tax gains is for the people at the lower end of the tax spectrum under my plan” while simultaneously admitting that the Tax Foundation got those gains from the mistaken belief that the refunds were refundable (and thus, would actually go to the very poor). See Dylan Matthews for the details and Rick Perlstein for some interesting background on the Tax Foundation.

It is Brooks' job to make calm, reasonable arguments supporting establishment conservative positions. That's what he's paid to do. That's where his reputational capital lies. At the moment the top priority of the establishment is to get the non-Trump/Carson wing of the party to coalesce behind an establishment candidate, which, at this point, more or less has to be Rubio. The challenge here is to sound Brooksian (maintaining an air of rationality and scholarship) while making an argument based on emotional associations.

Here's how he begins:
So after all the meshugas on the right over the past few years, the Republicans could wind up with two new leaders going into this election, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. That’s a pretty excellent outcome for a party that has shown an amazing tendency to inflict self-harm.

Ryan is the new House speaker and right now Rubio is the most likely presidential nominee. The shape of the presidential campaign is coming into focus. It’s still wise to expect (pray) that the celebrity candidates will fade as the shopping phase ends and the buying phase begins.

Voters don’t have to know the details of their nominee’s agenda, but they have to know that the candidate is capable of having an agenda. Donald Trump and Ben Carson go invisible when the subject of actual governance comes up.

Brooks starts casual – after all those meshugas, it's pretty excellent to have these guys – and he takes his time getting to that first key claim about Rubio. In typical fashion, the first half of the claim is sensible bordering on obvious -- I suspect most people would say that voters don't need  to know the details; they only need to know that independent experts find the details reasonable -- while the second half is highly questionable.  “Capable of having an agenda” is an incredibly low standard for a presidential nominee.

A bit later we get another nice pivot with the paragraph that's gotten so much attention:
While other candidates are repeating the formulas of the 1980s and 1990s, Rubio is a child of this century. He understands that it’s no longer enough to cut taxes and say bad things about government to produce widespread prosperity. In a series of major policy speeches over the past two years (he’s one of the few candidates who actually gives them), Rubio has emphasized that new structural problems threaten the American dream: technology displacing workers, globalization suppressing wages and the decline of marriage widening inequality.

His proposals reflect this awareness. At this stage it’s probably not sensible to get too worked up about the details of any candidate’s plans. They are all wildly unaffordable. What matters is how a candidate signals priorities. Rubio talks specifically about targeting policies to boost middle- and lower-middle-class living standards.

Check out how the first paragraph and the first sentence of the second seem to be leading up to a discussion of the ideas laid out in all of these major policy speeches? (by the way, if you're trying to slip a paragraph with a questionable thesis past readers, taking the last sentence of the previous paragraph and moving it to the beginning of the questionable one is a useful technique.) Then Brooks pulls a sharp rhetorical turn and says forget details, what matters is signaling.

[A quick aside. As Krugman points out, “any candidate” here apparently means “any GOP candidate” (and possibly “any leading GOP candidate”) None of Clinton's proposals appear to be wildly unaffordable.]

Signaling priorities might be a valid topic for a column but that's not where this one goes. Having told us that the details don't matter, Brooks dives back into the details. He spends the next half dozen paragraphs praising Rubio's policy ideas on taxes, education and the social safety net before concluding:
If Ryan and Rubio do emerge as the party’s two leaders, it will be the wonkiest leadership team in our lifetime. That’s a good thing.

You can see Brooks' dilemma. He wants to portray Rubio as a serious, detail-oriented policy thinker, a wonk among wonks, but Rubio's actual proposals make this line of argument extremely difficult. Even in the column's brief summary, Brooks includes Oren Cass's debunked claims about disabilities benefits and the aforementioned tax credit (where Brooks appears to make the same mistake that the Tax Foundation did).

By framing the discussion in terms of signaling and being “capable of having an agenda,” Brooks is able to praise Rubio's ideas without actually having to defend them. It is a characteristically smart and well-executed strategy and another reminder that David Brooks is very good at being David Brooks.

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