Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Krugman vs. Obama
I guess we wouldn't be progressives if our greatest public tribune and our most inspirational potential standard-bearer weren't all up in each others' grills. Talking Points Memo interviewed Paul Krugman today, and found the pundit even more belligerent towards Barack Obama's presidential candidacy than he'd previously indicated. Krugman's primary objection, again, is to both the specifics and the style of Obama's approach to health care reform. But it's not his only beef:

PK: Health care is make or break for whether we're going to have a real liberal turn in policy or not. Health care is the gaping hole in the welfare state. We all agree that the system is deeply flawed. And health care has political spillover. If Democrats get major health care reform, then it kind of re-legitimizes the idea of activist government policies. Even conservatives say that.

Yet on health care Obama is behaving as kind of, "Let's make a deal." The idea that he would be talking even in the primary campaign about the big table is suggesting that he is not all that committed to taking on special interests.

On the big problems there's a fundamental, deep-seated difference between the parties. I've always just felt that his tone was one suggesting that his inclination is to believe that we can somehow resolve these thing through a kind of outbreak of good feeling.
EC: What other things gave rise to your current critique of Obama?

PK: When Obama used the word "crisis" about Social Security it gave me a little bit of a sense of, "Hmmm -- I'm a little worried that my initial concerns were more right than I knew."
It's a tone thing. I find it a little bit worrisome if we have a candidate who basically starts compromising before the struggle has even begun.

EC: But surely there's something to the argument that the skills to build coalitions, to win over moderates on the other side, aren't without any importance. Should we really take tone and rhetorical skills out of the equation entirely?

PK: ... there aren't any moderates on the other side. And as far as sounding moderate goes, the reality is that if the Democrats nominated Joe Lieberman, a month into the general election Republicans would be portraying him as Josef Stalin. Obama's actually been positioning himself to the right of both Clinton and Edwards on domestic policy and has been attacking them from the right.
And after the election, if you come in after having opposed mandates and having said Social Security is in a crisis, then you're going to have some problems fending off Republican attacks on health care and The Washington Post's demands that you make Social Security a top priority. Mostly it's a question of what happens after the election.

I think the second chunk of the excerpt indicates what's really going on here. Krugman's analysis of the political situation in America is pretty simple: Republicans, not just George W. Bush--but the party as a whole; Bush isn't an aberration but rather a culmination-- represent, and continue to represent, an existential threat not just to progressivism but to America in its best conception of itself. Given this, it makes perfect sense that Obama's unwillingness to demonize "the other side" doesn't sit well with him. Krugman favors the Edwards approach of a frontal assault on the citadels of power. A very astute commenter (not me!) on the site put it this way:

Sen Obama believes that those on the other side of the debate are not so intrinsically evil that it is impossible to work together with them to arrive at something that is better than that which we have now. To be very fair, it is clear that Sen Clinton believes the same, although she phrases her belief differently. Dr Krugman believes (and not without reason) that those on the other side are so thoroughly committed to their own self interest (even at the expense of the common good) that they will never allow a change in the status quo unless and until they are compelled to do so. In other words, Obama has hope and Krugman has none. Only time will tell whether this means that Obama is a dupe or a visionary, or whether Krugman is a realist or a crank.

Who's right and who's wrong here depends on a couple questions. The first is how big, and how monolithic, "the other side" really is. Are there "reachable" Republicans, either in office or among the electorate more broadly? Can President Obama peel off enough of them to make broadly progressive gains? (A related question is whether the activist left would accept a policy solution that maybe gets us two-thirds of what we want, or if the David Sirota types would scream "SELLOUT!" so loudly that the coalition would collapse from within.)

The second question is whether, assuming he finds that there aren't enough reachable Republicans to pass legislation, President Obama (yeah, it's fun to type) could use the bully pulpit to make those recalcitrant Republicans pay an unbearable political price--whether, essentially, he can steer a national conversation to move the voting public to change the cast of political actors in a way more conducive to Obama's policy goals. This is the part that interests me--and it's why I'm strongly for Obama over Hillary Clinton (who lacks both the stomach to take on entrenched interests in the first place, and the broad appeal to change anyone's minds) and less certainly for Obama over Edwards (whose critique--which Krugman seems to share wholeheartedly--is probably correct, but whom I don't see as politically skilled enough either to peel off waverers or destroy avowed enemies).

Changing that conversation is what great presidents do. Lincoln and FDR, Jefferson and Wilson and TR, saw where the country was, knew where they wanted to lead it, and gradually made their case--ultimately (except for Wilson with the League of Nations) with history-changing success. Of the three leading Democrats, Obama is the only one who strikes me as having the potential to remake the world in that way.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter also points out that Krugman's favored approach--the frontal assault Edwards presumably would wage--does not have a very good track record in terms of changing policy:

The columnist and his candidate both believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded by being a polarizing figure. I studied FDR for four years while writing a book about him, and this is simply untrue. It's also untrue of other successful Democratic presidents and for a simple reason: "Bitter confrontation" simply doesn't work in policy-making.

Bear with me for a brief history lesson: The so-called "First New Deal" of 1933-34 came after Roosevelt won a landslide victory over Herbert Hoover in 1932 in a campaign devoid of any populist message despite an unemployment rate of at least 25 percent. First, FDR worked with Hoover treasury officials from the other party to rescue the banks under a conservative plan that included steep budget cuts. The rest of his famous "100 days" agenda-which included unprecedented jobs programs, agricultural reform, labor rights, and regulation of financial markets—was achieved with much more compromise than Krugman recognizes. Social Security came in 1935 after a big Democratic mandate in midterm elections and was enacted piecemeal and cooperatively (to the disappointment of many New Deal liberals) with everyone at the table.

During and after his 1936 reelection campaign, FDR—angry at the ingratitude of the rich Americans whose fortunes he had saved—adopted class-based politics. In 1937, with a big victory under his belt, he tried confrontation with his court-packing scheme. It failed badly. So did his effort to "purge" the opposition in 1938. The rest of his second-term was far less productive legislatively than his first. By the end of it, he turned to foreign policy. FDR's third-term success, dominated by World II, was dependent on his unifying the country.
Similarly, Woodrow Wilson's big legislative triumphs over entrenched interests in 1913 (for example, an income tax), Lyndon Johnson's in 1965 (Medicare and the Voting Rights Act) and Bill Clinton's in 1993 (painful tax increases) were achieved with legislative skill, not brute force and a populist message.

Krugman is a populist. He writes that if nominated, Obama would win, "but not as big as a candidate who ran on a more populist platform." This is facile and ahistorical. How many 20th Century American presidents have been elected on a populist platform? That would be zero, Paul. You could even include Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000. Instead of exploiting the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Gore ran on a "people vs. the powerful" message. It never ignited.

Edwards is feeding red meat to the Democratic base. I admit that I respond to that--as Krugman clearly does. But ultimately it's hard to win the supermajorities needed to change the world through that approach. It's better than Clinton--who feeds red meat to the reactionary base, while drooling pabulum to ours--but I still think both history and pragmatism indicate we should try this Obama's way.

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