David Brooks and Paul Krugman share the op-ed pages of the New York Times but not much else, least of all collegiality. Brooks, a conservative in a liberal milieu, is the reasonable one. When he wants to slam President Obama, as he did last Friday, he first declares him to be "an intelligent, judicious man who can see all sides of an issue"—that is, much like Brooks himself. "I suppose it's to his credit that he's most inept when he tries to take the low road," Brooks went on about Obama. "He resorts to hoary, brain-dead cliches. He wanders so far from his true nature that he makes Mitt Romney look like Mr. Authenticity." (Points to Brooks for ripping both sides.)
But Brooks thinks the low road is "pretty much" what Obama traveled when he slammed Paul Ryan's federal budget proposal last week in a speech in Washington. Brooks allowed that Democrats have made "legitimate criticisms" of the Ryan budget's "disturbing weaknesses," but these have been buried "under an avalanche of distortion." As for Obama, "He unleashed every 1980s liberal cliche in the book, calling the Republicans a bunch of trickle-down, Trojan horse-bearing social Darwinists."
Two days later, Krugman's response appeared. Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2008, made no attempt to say something nice about Ryan before he savaged him. Ryan, Krugman wrote at the outset, "isn't especially interesting. He's a garden-variety modern G.O.P. extremist, an Ayn Rand devotee who believes that the answer to all problems is to cut taxes on the rich and slash benefits for the poor and middle class."
What is interesting, in Krugman's view, "is the cult that has grown up around Mr. Ryan—and in particular the way self-proclaimed centrists elevated him into an icon of fiscal responsibility, and even now can't seem to let go of their fantasy." A cult, in other words, composed of dupes hoist by the petard of their own reasonableness—like the unnamed David Brooks.
As for what Obama had to say about the Ryan budget, it was "completely accurate" in Krugman's view.
Op-ed personas aside, who's right about Ryan? Unfortunately, it is long-established procedure among columnists—especially at the same paper—never to engage each other's arguments directly. There's nothing to be gained from giving readers even a hint that someone out there in Punditland—maybe on the far side of the same page!—thinks you're an idiot.
So Brooks tells us this: "In 2013, according to Veronique de Rugy of George Mason University, the Ryan budget would be about 5 percent smaller than the Obama budget, and it would grow a percent or two more slowly each year. After 10 years, government would be smaller under Ryan, but as Daniel Mitchell of the Cato Institute complains [Brooks deftly bulwarks his centrist case for the Ryan budget by citing a libertarian critic of it], it would still take up a larger share of national output than when Bill Clinton left office. Obama exaggerated these normal-sized differences into a Manichaean chasm."
And Krugman tells us: "You can get the gist [of the Ryan budget] if you understand two numbers: $4.6 trillion and 14 million. Of these, $4.6 trillion is the revenue cost over the next decade of the tax cuts embodied in the plan, as estimated by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. These cuts . . . would disproportionately benefit the wealthy, with the average member of the top 1 percent receiving a tax break of $238,000 a year. Mr. Ryan insists that despite these tax cuts his proposal is 'revenue neutral,' that he would make make up for the lost revenue by closing loopholes. But he has refused to specify a single loophole he would close."
Brooks on the Medicare component of Ryan's budget: "The Ryan plan would slowly phase in a premium support option, in which the government would give people money to buy insurance. This general idea was embraced by Bill Clinton's bipartisan Medicare reform commission. It follows a similar design to the prescription drug benefit. Its effectiveness is unproved, but it's a time-tested and respectable proposal, with expert support. Obama treated it as some sort of alien monster from the lunatic fringe."
And Krugman: "Meanwhile, 14 million is a minimum estimate of the number of Americans who would lose health insurance under Mr. Ryan's proposed cuts in Medicaid; estimates by the Urban Institute actually put the number as between 14 million and 27 million. So the proposal is exactly as President Obama described it: a proposal to deny health care (and many other essentials) to millions of Americans, while lavishing tax cuts on corporations and the wealthy—all while failing to reduce the budget deficit, unless you believe in Mr. Ryan's secret revenue sauce."
Perhaps either Brooks or Krugman is right and the other is wrong. Or perhaps each is a "blind man"—who can actually see just fine—describing an elephant by the part of it he chooses to fondle.
At any rate, I finished the two columns without feeling I'd learned a thing about Ryan's budget ideas. What I'd learned, or relearned, was about the columnists themselves. Brooks wants to be thought of as a fine fellow. "There is no one party solution," he concludes loftily: "there has to be a merger of respectable ideas." And Krugman wants to kick ass. "You can see the problem these [centrist] commentators face," he concludes. "To admit that the president's critique is right would be to admit that they were snookered by Mr. Ryan, who is the same as he ever was. More than that, it would call into question their whole centrist shtick—for the moral of my story is that Mr. Ryan isn't the only emperor who turns out, on closer examination, to be naked."
They could take their show on the road.