The Krugman-Alter Showdown
We have a winner.
Recently, Paul Krugman of the NYT started blasting Barack Obama, stating that he was too safe, and not the “change candidate” that many have anointed him to be. It’s clear that Krugman favors John Edwards, whose ‘Two Americas’ platform resonates with him. Fair enough. And while it stung me to see criticism by someone I respect (Krugman) of someone I plan on voting for, everything is fair in politics, right? Krugman’s most recent gripe was that Obama’s statements of getting everyone at the table for healthcare reform is naïve.
Over the last few days Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards have been conducting a long-range argument over health care that gets right to this issue. And I have to say that Mr. Obama comes off looking, well, naïve.
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.
Well, I just read a fantastic retort to Krugman by another journalist I respect, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. Here are a few of his choice clips:
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.
Krugman says that pundits like me who reject sharp anti-corporate rhetoric and prefer cooperation are "projecting their own desires onto the public." We'll see. But last time I checked, millions of Americans still work for corporations or aspire to do so and bashing them wholesale is a loser politically. It works sometimes in Democratic primaries with a heavy labor vote (though not for Dick Gephardt). But not in general elections. The last two Democrats elected president-Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992-also campaigned during recessions. Both were smart enough to reject populism in favor of a responsive but upbeat message.
To call Obama "anti-change," as Paul Krugman does, is anti-common sense. Leadership requires a mixture of confrontation and compromise, with room for the losers to save face. "They have to feel the heat to see the light," LBJ liked to say. That heat is best applied up close. In public. Across the big table.
Well said. Krugman’s logic is sadly one of the reasons Democratic candidates lose a lot – they don’t blame the politics game as well as Republicans. Did any rational person think Bush’s “compassionate conservative” line was anything but hooey? No…but he likely wouldn’t have “won” had he stated that he was going to lead the most partisan, vitriolic and secretive administration in recent memory. Obama may or may not be the progressive darling Krugman hopes to be, but he’s obviously thinking smartly about how he’d lead the country in general. That’s, well…leadership.
Updated: Kevin Drum weighs in:
Alter goes on to make some interesting historical analogies, but I want to stop right here because it strikes me that he's misinterpreting Krugman in an important way. Krugman — I think — isn't actively recommending "bitter confrontation" as a policymaking tactic, he's simply observing that any Democratic president had better expect sustained, dogged, and bitter confrontation from their opponents if he or she tries to implement serious healthcare reform.
Krugman's fear seems to be that Obama is expecting that he can charm and negotiate his way out of this inevitable confrontation, and won't be prepared when that turns out not to work. Edwards and Clinton, by contrast, since they harbor no illusions, will be willing to play hardball from day one. That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be out on the hustings every day during their first term hurling populist invective at pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry, but it does mean that, like FDR, they'll be willing to use every lever of power they can think of, both public and private, to get their way.
Now, that may or may not be fair. Obama might very well know what to expect. Or Krugman might just be wrong about the reception he'll get. But bitter confrontation is what Krugman is predicting, not what he's yearning for. It's an important difference.
Drum, as usual, has a good point...but I still think Krugman is being a weenie.