Sunday, May 04, 2008

Is the Journey to the Dark Side Complete?
Here now as we get toward the end of the primary season, Hillary Clinton has finally done something I thought was absent from her political character and taken a bold stand. Unfortunately, it's a stand in favor of both a bad idea and a practical impossibility: the "gas tax holiday." In urging this absurd policy move, she's parted ways with fellow Democrat Barack Obama, who calls it a gimmick, and lined up with Republican nominee John McCain. (Albeit with one differing detail in whether the oil companies pick up the slack--really just shuffling their money--or whether it goes on the card along with the war, the compounding interest of the national debt, and the rest of the tax cuts. This difference doesn't matter on any level other than rhetoric, because the proposal is a practical impossibility. But more on that in a minute.)

Robert Reich sums it up:

When asked this morning by ABC News' George Stephanopoulos if she could name a single economist who backs her call for a gas tax holiday this summer, HRC said "I'm not going to put my lot in with economists.”

I know several of the economists who have been advising Senator Clinton, so I phoned them right after I heard this. I reached two of them. One hadn’t heard her remark and said he couldn’t believe she’d say it. The other had heard it and shrugged it off as “politics as usual.”

That’s the problem: Politics as usual.

The gas tax holiday is small potatoes relative to everything else. But it’s so economically stupid (it would increase demand for gas and cause prices to rise, eliminating any benefit to consumers while costing the Treasury more than $9 billion, and generate more pollution) and silly (even if she won, HRC won’t be president this summer) as to be worrisome. That HRC now says she doesn’t care that what economists think is even more troubling.

Reich goes on to note that this is George W. Bush's modus operandi, which in his hands led to some "extraordinarily stupid policies." But what the Clintons are doing here is not actually what Bush does. It could be argued that this is worse.

I believe Bush (or, shall we say, "the Bush administration") pursues stupid policies in the face of expert opinion for three reasons: it's an item of political faith for him that he simply will not examine (tax cuts forever and always), there's a clear structural political motivation and/or it pays off the donors, (the "faith-based initiative" to buy off black churches and undermine the public sector, "tort reform" aimed at impoverishing Democratic-donor trial lawyers, restrictive election laws, the encouraging of media consolidation, Medicare Part D), or Bush's ego is involved (Iraq, leaving much of the bureaucracy vacant because the Congress won't accept ideologues as nominees)

In other words, it's because he's weak-minded and intellectually lazy, a champion of party ahead of country, or a monstrous egotist. I wouldn't characterize Hillary Clinton as either of the first two, and while she is a monstrous egotist (which most politicians, perhaps including Obama, are), I don't think that's what's going on here.

No, she's urging a stupid policy that is a practical impossibility simply to leverage a tactic. That tactic is illustrated simply by the language with which she and Bill Clinton are making their arguments:

Former President Bill Clinton was in West Virginia on his wife's behalf. In Clarksburg, he called her a scrapper and contrasted her appeal among working-class voters with the elitists he said support Obama.

"The great divide in this country is not by race or even income, it's by those who think they are better than everyone else and think they should play by a different set of rules," he said. "In West Virginia and Arkansas, we know that when we see it."

Today, Sen. Clinton put the cherry on it with this gem: "Elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantages the vast majority of Americans.” Elite opinion: this includes the people who populate think tanks, conduct research and analyze information. The people who come from the great institutions of learning where they spent years learning and thinking and honing their judgment and acumen. The people who are paid, often pretty well, to know what they're talking about.

This of course is the tactic Bush often used to disparage opponents of his policies: classics here include the "I've read the report put out by the bureaucracy" dismissal of a major study on global warming, and his perennial jibe at any nearby eggheads by reminding them that he, the C-student, is the president. It's a cheap emotional appeal, a call to irrational resentment barely fig-leafed by an appeal to "common sense" folk wisdom.

But he's using it for an end. In the Clintons' case, using the tactic is the end. The gas tax holiday isn't going to happen: it's opposed in the House, and its prospects aren't good in the Senate. And it's certainly not going to happen before Memorial Day. Clinton, of course, knows this; even were she there at, y'know, her day job, buttonholing colleagues and cutting deals and generally doing the things that Senate champions do to try and pass their favored legislation, there's no way something gets to the president's desk with broad support in anything like the three weeks until the holiday.

So Clinton is pushing a plan that, if implemented, would have no impact on the problem it theoretically addresses, while exerting a painful opportunity cost (among other costs) in policy terms. The plan can't be implemented, for the practical reasons noted above. And she's doing it solely because it advances the beyond-risible "heartland fighter versus sissified elitist smartypants" storyline she's trying to peddle in hopes of taking the nomination.

This is a strategy that panders to, even glorifies, ignorance as a virtue. It's pretty much certain that Clinton knows better--which illuminates the bottomless cynicism of her political character. And if she doesn't know better, that's a fairly significant problem too.

2 comments:

The Navigator said...

This gas-tax holiday dispute is an absolutely classic encapsulation of why I was for Obama and not Clinton for the last several months. I thought he was just less likely to sell us out on important issues, whereas the Clintons can't be trusted not to support any damn thing if they think it'll gain them a few polling points. It's actually pretty sweet that this tactic seems to have backfired on Clinton and hurt her a little, as it deserved to.

The Navigator said...

This gas-tax holiday dispute is an absolutely classic encapsulation of why I was for Obama and not Clinton for the last several months. I thought he was just less likely to sell us out on important issues, whereas the Clintons can't be trusted not to support any damn thing if they think it'll gain them a few polling points. It's actually pretty sweet that this tactic seems to have backfired on Clinton and hurt her a little, as it deserved to.