Monday, December 17, 2007

Paul Krugman vs Barack Obama

Sigh. This is going to be my first post of substance in awhile and it is one I that I'd rather not pen at all, but considering my first application for journalism school has been submitted, I need to get used to writing even when I'm not in the mood (or when I'm unsure of my total grasp of the material...or both).

Anyway, at the outset, I should say I am a huge Paul Krugman fan. He's been the most vocal liberal pundit at the nation's most influential newspaper for some time now, and he (generally) presents timely, devastating and factually accurate critiques of the Bush administration and its policies. He's not afraid of being called a liberal (perish the thought!) and he's not afraid of a fight. Given how polarizing the last seven years have been, this is all very good and Krugman should be celebrated for taking strong stands in support of some policy positions long before they became popular with the masses.

I should also note that I am in the bag for Obama. Should he get the nomination, I will certainly be voting for him.

So having said all that, it pains me to see the repeated swipes that Krugman and Obama have been taking at each other. In his November 16th op-ed in the New York Times (entitled, "Played for a Sucker"), Krugman began to advance the idea that Obama was buying into conservative talking points by labeling social security in "crisis". Whether one believes that to be true or not (I agree with Krugman that social security is not among the top issues facing the country at the moment), Krugman's take was especially harsh in its judgment of Obama's desire to move the nation in a "post partisan" political environment:

He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times — and in this case, that turned him into a sucker.

Next, in his November 30th column, Krugman comes after Obama again, this time on health care. Krugman, who generally likes Obama's health plan, criticizes it because it lacks a mandate (both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards have released health care plans with an individual mandate). Krugman again makes the charge that Obama is echoing right wing talking points, much like he did on social security:

Mr. Obama, then, is wrong on policy. Worse yet, the words he uses to defend his position make him sound like Rudy Giuliani inveighing against "socialized medicine": he doesn't want the government to "force" people to have insurance, to "penalize" people who don't participate.

I recently castigated Mr. Obama for adopting right-wing talking points about a Social Security "crisis." Now he’s echoing right-wing talking points on health care.

What seems to have happened is that Mr. Obama's caution, his reluctance to stake out a clearly partisan position, led him to propose a relatively weak, incomplete health care plan. Although he declared, in his speech announcing the plan, that "my plan begins by covering every American," it didn't — and he shied away from doing what was necessary to make his claim true.

Now, in the effort to defend his plan's weakness, he's attacking his Democratic opponents from the right — and in so doing giving aid and comfort to the enemies of reform.

The social security spat didn't merit a real response from team Obama, but the health care column did, and Obama's campaign website quickly posted a "fact check" contesting Krugman's previously announced affinity for the plan. This was followed up by unsourced (and as of now, unproven) claims by Chris Bowers at OpenLeft that Obama's team was collecting "oppo research" on progressive bloggers. That in turn led to a host of liberal bloggers (many of whom I greatly admire and try to emulate, like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias) denouncing Obama for attacking, in Klein's words, "arguably the most progressive voice in American media."

Yesterday, Krugman came out with his strongest attack on Obama yet. With health care once again the backdrop, Krugman removes the gloves and calls Obama "naïve" for his continual belief that we can have something other than our current divisive political atmosphere. He goes on to call Obama "unrealistic" for thinking that he could actually get drug and insurance companies to sit down and agree to constructively aiding the health care reform process. And then we come to the heart of the matter once again...Krugman's dislike of Obama's message of change:

As health care goes, so goes the rest of the progressive agenda. Anyone who thinks that the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world.

Which brings me to a big worry about Mr. Obama: in an important sense, he has in effect become the anti-change candidate.

There's a strong populist tide running in America right now. For example, a recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what's wrong with the country was "Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington."

And there's every reason to believe that the Democrats can win big next year if they run with that populist tide. The latest evidence came from focus groups run by both Fox News and CNN during last week's Democratic debate: both declared Mr. Edwards the clear winner.

But the news media recoil from populist appeals. The Des Moines Register, which endorsed Mr. Edwards in 2004, rejected him this time on the grounds that his "harsh anti-corporate rhetoric would make it difficult to work with the business community to forge change."

And while The Register endorsed Hillary Clinton, the prime beneficiary of media distaste for populism has clearly been Mr. Obama, with his message of reconciliation. According to a recent survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Mr. Obama's coverage has been far more favorable than that of any other candidate.

So what happens if Mr. Obama is the nominee?

He will probably win — but not as big as a candidate who ran on a more populist platform. Let's be blunt: pundits who say that what voters really want is a candidate who makes them feel good, that they want an end to harsh partisanship, are projecting their own desires onto the public.

And nothing Mr. Obama has said suggests that he appreciates the bitterness of the battles he will have to fight if he does become president, and tries to get anything done.

The above section is where it comes off the rails for me in terms of Krugman's arguments and I think there's a lot wrong there. First off, the "strong populist tide" that's sweeping the nation is apparently not as strong as Krugman thinks. If it is indeed so strong, why is John Edwards, the most unabashedly populist candidate in the race, stuck in 3rd in Iowa? Throwing red meat to the unions during the primary season is a smart move as far as it goes, but these aren't the unions of your parent's youth; they account for only 12% of the American workforce and have been in decline since the first Reagan inauguration. Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal takes this further:

Krugman seems to believe that Democrats need to run a populist campaign that takes on big business and the influence of corporate America. This is a familiar refrain from liberal Democrats; if only Democrats were true to their Rooseveltian legacy and played up their populist roots they would win every election.

It's a nice tale; it's also one that has virtually no historical precedent and is almost certainly wrong. With a few notable exceptions, Truman in 1948, possibly FDR in 36 and Wilson in 1912, populism, or us vs. them, rhetoric, simply doesn't work in American presidential politics.

Krugman argues the John Edwards view that "America needs another FDR, a polarizing figure" who will take on the "economic royalists." Krugman claims that recent focus groups run after the last Democratic debate show that John Edwards was the big winner - hence populism works! Not only is that, how shall we say, a small sample size on which to base an argument, but if Edwards strategy was so effective then why is he still running third in Iowa? Krugman blames the media for blunting populist appeals and in particular, the Des Moines Register, which recently attacked Edwards "harsh anti-corporate rhetoric." One would think that for a populist, Krugman would give Iowa voters a little more credit. Voters may respond viscerally to populist appeals, but in the end they usually choose the guy with the more positive message (just ask George Wallace and Ross Perot).

But even worse, Krugman's "FDR argument" ignores the fact that in FDR's first race for the White House he ran a very tepidly populist campaign (even in the throes of the country's worst economic downturn). Yes, FDR attacked big business, but not to the extent that Edwards is today and frankly most of his venom was directed at government inaction. "Bold experimentation" was the catchword of the campaign not us vs. them - that would come in 1936 and even then was far more tame then the radical populism of Huey Long and others. For anyone who thinks Roosevelt ran on liberalism and big government in 1932 go back and read his campaign speeches where he attacks Hoover for failing to cut government spending.

Since Harry Truman slash-and-burn populist campaign of 1948, one is hard pressed to think of a single Democrat who has won on with a populist message (possibly Carter in 76, but his populism was directed more at post-Watergate Washington rather than big business). In fact, the most embarrassing defeat by a Democrat in recent memory, Al Gore in 2000, came because of his misplaced "the people vs. the powerful" campaign theme. In recent years, it has been Republicans, not Democrats that have been the most effective populists, utilizing the us versus them argument of big government versus the people.
(Emphasis mine)

I think that's a pretty through demolishing of that particular line of attack. I think Krugman here has been stricken with a case of the pundit's fallacy.

Next is the idea that Obama isn't going to be enough of a fighter to champion progressive ideas if elected (an argument which is picked apart pretty well by Mark Kleiman and Ed Kilgore). Here again Krugman is projecting (odd considering he's talking about pundits projecting in this passage):

Let's be blunt: pundits who say that what voters really want is a candidate who makes them feel good, that they want an end to harsh partisanship, are projecting their own desires onto the public.

As Dan Drezner notes, this shows a lack of self-awareness on Krugman's part. Drezner also says that:

Matt Yglesias thinks that the Obama campaign is "poor[ly] handling... its relationship with the country's highest-profile liberal columnist," but I have to wonder if Obama is calculating that the long-term benefits outweigh any short-term costs.

As Krugman acknowledges at the beginning of his column, "Broadly speaking, the serious contenders for the Democratic nomination are offering similar policy proposals." Therefore, he's going to broadly support whichever Dem is nominated.

Obama, on the other hand, is not going to be hurt in the general election from a pissing match with Paul Krugman. Indeed, dust-ups like this provide Obama with the kind of perceived independence that plays well with... er... independents.

That last point is also aired in Clive Crook's latest Financial Times column:

But progressives have been under the Republicans’ hammer too long. Rapprochement is the last thing they want. What they want is their turn. They come not to work with Republicans, but to bury them. If Mr Obama believes he can come to useful compromises with those people, many liberal activists believe, he is either far too innocent for this kind of work or a traitor in the making.

A parallel springs to mind: Tony Blair’s love-hate relationship with Britain’s old Labour party. The country’s class-warriors never liked their most successful leader for decades and in the end you could say their fears were realised: he was indeed, as a cover of The Economist once put it, “the strangest Tory ever sold”. On the other hand, you cannot capture the centre without appealing to the centre.

Mr Blair often used the hard left’s barely veiled hostility as a means to entrench his power – for example, picking fights with the unions to prove his muscular pragmatism whenever his popularity flagged. The Obama campaign may be weighing the same strategy, for use if not now then after his hoped-for victory in the primaries. Angry progressives are as repellent to the centre that Mr Obama aims to recruit as the Republican fundamentalists at the other extreme. If the centre counts – and there lies the gamble – then the squirmings of the Democratic base are an asset to be exploited.

So far throughout this campaign, you've had folks like Krugman and Kos who are either dismayed or digusted with Obama's "above the fray" mentality and rhetoric. Those two guys, along with a lot of other Dems and progressives are in no mood to sit at at a table and talk turkey with a conservative movement that has been griding its boots into the face of the larger progressive movement for almost three decades. They see this election as one in which liberals can push through one of its last sacred cows (universal health care) and usher in a new progressive era . However, what if the pugilist mentality is wrong? One of the supposed strengths of Hillary Clinton is that she's a fighter, that her time as First Lady (which, by the way, should not count as "experience" as it relates to her own run for the White House) prepared her for the nasty battles and smears that she would have to face from the conservative noise machine. While it's certainly true that there is something to PDS, we may be moving to a time where our political class is more partisan, but the citizenry is less so. For awhile now, I've thought that the more strident liberals and progressives have misread the zeitgeist, and it appears there some truth to that notion:

After debacles in Iraq and New Orleans and mushrooming scandals that exposed much of Congress and the Cabinet as a low-rent crime family hired to collect protection money for the likes of Halliburton and Pfizer, people simply do not trust the politicians they vote for to be anything less than an embarrassment. You get the sense they approach the upcoming election with the enthusiasm of a two-time loser offered a selection of plea deals.

People hate the mechanized speeches, they hate the negative ads, and they especially hate venomous news creatures, myself included. It's now so bad that a poll last month found that fifty-six percent of all likely voters agreed with the phrase that the presidential race is "annoying and a waste of time" -- a shocking number, given that it excludes the forty to fifty percent of Americans who already don't vote in presidential races.

People don't want to feel this way, but the attitude everywhere is the same: What choice do these assholes give us? And it's that grim prejudice that has pervaded this process for a generation, forcing the public to choose from an endless succession of lesser evils and second- raters of the Kerry-Dole genus, stuffed suits who offered nothing like a solution to the main problem of feeling like shit about the American civic experiment.

Until now. Emphasizing that this is not necessarily a reflection of who or what Obama really is, he unmistakably and strikingly attracts crowds that, to a person, really seem to believe that his election will fundamentally change the way they feel about their country.

"I just want to see if there's going to be a difference with this cat," says Richard Walters, a forty-three-year-old New Yorker, who had come to hear Obama give a speech at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. "Because if there's something different, we need it -- now."

"At this point, I'd be glad if he recited the alphabet correctly," says Xiomara Hall, another New Yorker. Laughing, she and her friend add, "We got hope. Change is goood!"

"I just want to see if he can do something, anything, to change things," says Shirley Paulino, another visitor to the Apollo event. "See if he is what he says he is. We just -- we need it, you know?"

Normally the sight of prospective voters muttering platitudes about "hope" and "change" would make any reporter erupt with derisive laughter, but at Obama events one hears outbursts of optimism so desperate and artless that I can't help but check my cynical instinct. Grown men and women look up at you with puppy-dog eyes and all but beg you not to shit on their dreams. It's odd to say, but it's actually moving.

An important component of this phenomenon is that the Obama crowds are surprisingly free of the usual anti-Republican venom. As much as anything, his rise is a reflection of the country's increasing boredom with partisan hatred.

"I'm so tired of the president just talking to one part of the country, or one group," says Malia Scotch-Marmo. "I was in my twenties with Reagan, but I felt he talked to me, even though we were all Democrats. It would be great to have a black president. It would be great for kids to see. It would be a nice mind shift."

After a combined sixteen years of rancorous political battles under Bill Clinton and George W Bush, many Americans are tired of the fighting, the partisan sniping, the combative rhetoric. While I can certainly see why some might see Obama's inclusive rhetoric a bit hokey, it's also pretty clear that it's speaking to a lot of people at the moment. Simply attacking corporate interests as part of a populist message campaign as Edwards is doing (which, let's remember, didn't work in '04 either) or going negative by engaging in race baiting (like the odious recent attacks by the Clinton campaign) isn't moving people. Obama's message of change and hope is. Andrew Sullivan tends to wax a bit poetic when he writes about Obama, but on one thing, he is surely right; there is something different about this candidate, something that is exciting a host of Americans of all political stripes like never before. Will it be enough to put Obama over the top? We'll know if a few short weeks.

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