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December 17, 2007

Krugman vs. Obama II
Posted by Michael Cohen

Shadi has flagged Paul Krugman's piece in the NYT today, but I think his excellent critique only scratches the surface of all that is wrong with Krugman's argument. 

I don't know if in the past Barack Obama drove over Paul Krugman's dog or maybe stole his girlfriend, but the man really doesn't seem to like the Democratic Senator from Illinois. Today, we kind of get to the heart of Krugman's anger: he thinks Obama isn't divisive enough.

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.

Yet, this does not stop Krugman from making a highly dubious and unsupported argument about Obama:

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.

Really? I think the person doing the projecting here is Paul Krugman. Time after time, the candidate who wins on Election Day is the one with the affirmative message, not the one who relies on harsh partisanship. With the exception of Truman and possibly Bush in 1988, even a cursory examination of American presidential politics demonstrates that harshness almost never wins elections. Even in the highly partisan 2004 race, one could easily argue that for all his negativity, George Bush had a more positive, affirmative message then that of John Kerry. Moreover isn't it the pundits who play up the controversies and partisanship of American politics? In an article full of dubious arguments, this is by far the most egregious example.

Over the past 7 years, Paul Krugman has developed a not terribly surprising hatred of President Bush and the Republican Party, but that hatred has clouded his vision. He seemingly doesn't just want a Democrat to win the next election - he wants to spark a political revolution and throw the money changers out of the temple.  Like many progressives, Krugman seems to be holding out hope for that a populist will enter American politics and wipe away the influence of corporate America. Well guess what Paul, it's not going to happen. If Obama wants to change America's health care system he is going to have to work with the health insurance and drug companies.

As has been the case for most of American politics, the candidate who wins on Election Day will be the one that inspires Americans; the one that offers a hopeful vision for America. Right now, whether Krugman likes it or not, that candidate looks like it might be Barack Obama.


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A few comments to add to what Michael has said:

1. The message to which Democratic primary or caucus voters respond isn't quite the same message as the one to which general election voters respond. So why Krugman is appealing to polls of Democrats in Iowa as a vindication of Edwards particular brand of populism I don't know. Populist messages of various kinds do work. But general election populism is not the same thing as Democratic primary populism. For example, I think we can safely predict that a lot of the populist strains in the general election are going to have something to do with immigration - which hasn't been a big part of the Democratic campaign.

2. The central issue here is not just how to get a Democrat to win an election. We had a Democrat in the White House in the 90's and his health care plan crashed and burned. What Krugman doesn't seem to care much about, or want to address, is the politics of actually passing an extraordinarily complex passage of ground-breaking legislation. It's not so easy as just getting the right Democrat with the right policy package. The next president is not going to be able to pass Krugman's preferred policy package by executive proclamation.

3. Might I suggest that unless Krugman and his economics pals can conjure up a massive depression, it's wishful thinking to pine for the second coming of Rooseveltian anti-business populism, if such a movement ever did in fact exist, even in FDR's time.

4. I think Krugman is just sore because Obama chose a health care plan from rival policy wonks. But could I suggest that the differences between these plans hardly matter, and that the end result is bound to look very different from any plan on the table, once each political piranha has taken a bite out of it. The trick is how to get something through with the fewest bites taken. Krugman has said nothing about how to do this.

"Even in the highly partisan 2004 race, one could easily argue that for all his negativity, George Bush had a more positive, affirmative message then that of John Kerry."


Thanks to Dan Kervick for his great comments. I agree with all of them. Krugman's approach is a recipe for more divisiveness and more gridlock in Washington.

Michael, I think your argument is very good but that Krugman is really getting at another issue in a roundabout way: that partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing. It is true, by the way, that the media tends to be very critical of politicians who express views in line with what their base wants. They get accuse dof pandering. But why isn't it courageous to stick up for the base every now and then? Why do we assume that compromise is always a good thing? We all know that in practice the middle position between two polar opposites can be the worst of all possible options (like, "I want to invade Iraq but the country won't get behind a massive war so I'll do it with just a few troops...")

Divisiveness in politics isn't a bad thing if people are really divided over the issues.

If I understand Krugman correctly, he sees the health care the center piece of progressive movement, and timing is right now. He would hate to see that we'd waste this golden opportunity. So I'm not surprised that he goes after Obama again and again, as he used to chide Bush.

Krugman doesn't see Obama as a true representative of progressive movement, as Obama oscillates between left and right on social security and on health care mandate. On health care - I agree with Krugman - Obama hasn't shown any political will to get it done. Last but not least, experience. I think the failure more than 10 years ago makes Hillary much stronger now, as she knows what lies ahead and how to fight to get it done.

I have to respond to this last comment from Zhiyi Zhang. The reason why comprehensive health care reform is so difficult to pass is in large measure because Hillary screwed it up so badly in 1993!

The notion that she has learned from her mistakes strikes me as as a bit misguided. Because of her earlier mistakes and the suspicion with which she is held on health care it will be that much harder for her to pass a health care plan as President. Obama would have much more of a blank slate on the issue.

As Dan K pointed out in other comments it is simply unrealistic to think that any President will pass a health care plan without the involvement of the health care industry. They are critical to the process and frankly would likely be supportive of any measure that expands coverage - after all, that means 47 million new customers!

I dont totally disagree with Mike's point that partisanship is important. I just think the notion that highly partisan, populist campaigns win elections is wrong. In the end, most Americans are looking for something to vote for . . . not against.

From newsweek: How Hillary Won Over the Health-Care Industry

Yes, Hillary totally screwed it up the first time, but if there's anyone who can get it done, I'd say Hillary.

I dont totally disagree with Mike's point that partisanship is important. I just think the notion that highly partisan, populist campaigns win elections is wrong. In the end, most Americans are looking for something to vote for . . . not against.

Whatever you think of Edwards populism, you have to admit he does give voters a positive message: a vision of a more egalitarian and fair society. There's not much hate in his appeal, and by historical standards it's not very left wing at all. It's more Harry Truman than Henry Wallace.

The Democratic Congress, on the other hand, has been very bipartisan -- on the war, torture, domestic spying, and even spending levels. Why did we vote for them?


Senator Obama did in fact steal my girlfriend, so I am justifiably angry at him. In addition, he stole my dog, or put more accurately, my dog chose to join Obama because of what a mean, dried up, miserable man I've become. Come to think of it, that might have been the cause of the girlfriend thing too.


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