Monday, June 30, 2008

Paul Krugman wonders whether the degree of "change" to be expected from this presidential election will be more like that of 1980 or 1992


President-elect Clinton visits former President Reagan in
his Los Angeles office after the November 1992 election.

"For Democrats, winning this election should be the easy part. Everything is going their way: sky-high gas prices, a weak economy and a deeply unpopular president. The real question is whether they will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country's direction. And that's mainly up to Mr. Obama."
-- Paul Krugman, in his NYT column this morning,
"The Obama Agenda"

A lot of my compatriots on the left are panicking over recent evidences that now-certain Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is "moving to the center."

Oh, I'm not saying that I'm unconcerned. I just don't think that any of these evidences tell us any more about what Senator Obama really believes than we knew before, and as I've been saying all through this presidential cycle (which has been going on now, what?, about six years?), I don't know how to find out what the candidates actually believe, or what they would actually try to do if they made it to the White House -- what they would be prepared to fight for.

Again, I've felt that about all the candidates, or at any rate mostly all. I don't think there was much question about what Dennis Kucinich believed, on the Democratic side, or Sam Brownback and maybe Ron Paul on the Republican side. And over the course of the campaign, or as much of it as he lasted through, Chris Dodd gave me a growing sense of confidence about what to expect from a President Dodd, impossible though that always was.

As for the others, well, the more you listened to them, it seemed to me, the less you knew about them, except what their behind-the-scenes strategists had decided their target voters wanted to hear. Even a wacko ideologue like Minister Mike Huckabee seemed to be more concerned with "positioning" himself to pluck off the Republicans' Christian Right base than cluing voters in to his actual beliefs. (Say, Minister Mike, would you like to tell us now how you really feel about immigration?)

Of course none of this affects my thinking about the choice in November. As Howie was indicating earlier today, this remains no contest. Young Johnny McCranky brings with him a lethal combination of the catastrophically failed policies of modern-day Movement Conservatism, which he has so furiously embraced, and his own well-documented lack of principle of any sort, beyond his steadfast commitment to his personal comfort and advancement.

And the muscle-flexing flourish with which the Roberts Court ended its present term, flaunting the evidence that the new hard-right majority is prepared to go on an ideological rampage (at least as long as Justice Anthony Kennedy signs on for the ride), reminds us that at the simplest level, replacing Justice John Paul Stevens, when the time comes, can't be left to right-wing ideologues. Let's not kid ourselves, even assuming President Obama gets to make the next Supreme Court appointment or two, it's not going to be an easy ride to get a qualified, civilized nominee confirmed, the way the sociopathic Republican minority now controls the Senate. Still, do we want that nominee named by Obama or McCranky?

As to what else to expect from President Obama, well, I'll be damned if I know. And so I'm especially open to the lines of speculation pursued by Paul Krugman in today's column.

The situation this year, he says, reminds him of two previous "change" elections: 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected to replace Jimmy Carter, and 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected to replace Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush. What concerns him is which model of "change" Barack Obama has in mind:

Reagan, for better or worse -- I'd say for worse, but that's another discussion -- brought a lot of change. He ran as an unabashed conservative, with a clear ideological agenda. And he had enormous success in getting that agenda implemented. He had his failures, most notably on Social Security, which he tried to dismantle but ended up strengthening. But America at the end of the Reagan years was not the same country it was when he took office.

Bill Clinton also ran as a candidate of change, but it was much less clear what kind of change he was offering. He portrayed himself as someone who transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divide, proposing "a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.” The economic plan he announced during the campaign was something of a hodgepodge: higher taxes on the rich, lower taxes for the middle class, public investment in things like high-speed rail, health care reform without specifics.

We all know what happened next. The Clinton administration achieved a number of significant successes, from the revitalization of veterans' health care and federal emergency management to the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and health insurance for children. But the big picture is summed up by the title of a new book by the historian Sean Wilentz: "The Age of Reagan: A history, 1974-2008.”

Just now, says Krugman, Obama is "definitely looking Clintonesque." Bill Clinton presented himself as "transcending traditional divides." Obama's economic plan also reminds him of what Clinton was advancing in 1992.

Krugman makes it clear that "we could -- and still might -- do a lot worse than a rerun of the Clinton years." But the very mushiness of Obama's positioning doesn't encourage him:
The Reagan-Clinton comparison suggests that a candidate who runs on a clear agenda is more likely to achieve fundamental change than a candidate who runs on the promise of change but isn't too clear about what that change would involve.

Which brings us back to where we started:
One thing is clear: for Democrats, winning this election should be the easy part. Everything is going their way: sky-high gas prices, a weak economy and a deeply unpopular president. The real question is whether they will take advantage of this once-in-a-generation chance to change the country's direction. And that's mainly up to Mr. Obama.

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At 7:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember my dad saying something about politics when I was a kid. He said, and he must have been quoting someone, that most politicians run to the side of their party to get the nomination and then run to the center to get the presidency.
I think that is what Obama is doing. I know Bush did it with his pledges to be a "uniter" not a divider and we all know what happened there... he ran back to the right and buried himself there. Here's hoping Obama doesn't quite do that, but does lean more left than center for his presidency.
G in INdiana

At 8:30 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Your dad was a smart guy, G. That's indeed usually the way it works out. But all bets have been off since Bill Clinton ran into the blank wall that was the health insurance industry when he tried to change their way of doing business. That ushered in the Age of Triangulation.

We have to hope that Obama is "just saying" these things. One problem is that the stack of things we're hoping he's "just saying" is really piling up.


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