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Sunday, December 12, 2010

"The Village Constructs its Mythology"

Paul Krugman and Dean Baker have effectively dismantled this I am really proud of Obama for standing up to Democrats column. For example, here's Paul Krugman:

I don’t usually bother looking at the Washington Post. But I’m inside the Beltway right now, so I spared a peek — and for my sins ended up reading Dana Milbank, who praises Obama for punching the hippies.

So far, so usual. But then I read this:

This is a hopeful sign that Obama has learned the lessons of the health-care debate, when he acceded too easily to the wishes of Hill Democrats, allowing them to slow the legislation and engage in a protracted debate on the public option. Months of delay gave Republicans time to make their case against “socialism” and prevented action on more pressing issues, such as job creation. Democrats paid for that with 63 seats.

Um, that’s not what happened — and I followed the health care process closely. The debate over the public option wasn’t what slowed the legislation. What did it was the many months Obama waited while Max Baucus tried to get bipartisan support, only to see the Republicans keep moving the goalposts; only when the White House finally concluded that Republican “moderates” weren’t negotiating in good faith did the thing finally get moving.

So look at how the Village constructs its mythology. The real story, of pretend moderates stalling action by pretending to be persuadable, has been rewritten as a story of how those DF hippies got in the way, until the centrists saved the day.

The worst of it is that I suspect Obama’s memory has gone down the same hole.

Piling on helps to squeeze the air out of dumb, misleading, incorrect arguments, so let me note a different passage. Dana Milbank says:

Liberals, if they can see beyond their pique, should realize that the emergence of Obama's forceful leadership could be good for them. This time, he stood against his Democratic colleagues, but there's reason to hope that he'll show his newly discovered spine to the Republicans the next time.

Forceful leadership means giving in to Republican demands? That shows spine? Democrats should be encouraged by this? Contrary to Milbank's claim, this makes it less, not more likely that Obama will "show his newly discovered spine to the Republicans the next time."

Essentially, Milbank is arguing that the president has gained credibility. But I think Andrew Samwick has it right -- the center still believes they can walk all over the president if they raise enough fuss -- and what he needed to do was something other than give in to the center-right's demands:

...[Suppose] the President had simply said:

In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats gained the Congress and the Presidency by campaigning against economic policies that favored the rich at the expense of others.  In 2010, the Republicans gained the House of Representatives by campaigning against deficit spending.  I am going to respect the wishes of the electorate in all three elections.  I will not sign any legislation that extends the tax cuts on incomes over $250,000 (or $1,000,000).  Nor will I sign any legislation that widens deficits in the near term that does not close them by an equal or greater amount within ten years.  If the Republicans and Democrats want such legislation to become law, they are welcome to take the path offered by the Constitution to pass it over my veto.

The skeptic might say that such a threat is not credible.  At the moment, it may not be. Only the President can change that.  The first time he makes a threat and then carries it out is when he gains credibility. Now would have been a great time to start.

There are two ways to get votes. You can adopt policies and rhetoric that increase the turnout on your side, or you can move the center (and the best policies do both, they motivate supporters and capture more of the voters at the center). If you are going to go against the base and hurt turnout among supporters, you darn well better move the center more than enough to compensate. Obama has certainly ticked off his supporters but has he captured the center? The loss of 63 House seats Milbank talks about answers that.

Obama hasn't captured the center's support for the future, the next time he proposes a policy they disagree with they will be just as adamant in opposing it as they are this time. "Pretend moderates .... pretending to be persuadable" have not been captured by the president due to his willingness to give in to their demands, and he will not be able to count on their support in the future. If anything, they will be emboldened in their opposition to the president whenever he proposes something they disagree with. It worked once, and it can work again. Thus, this will make it harder to oppose the center-right in the future, not easier. And I'm supposed to be encouraged by this?

Update: Robert Reich:

The Why-Should-I-Get-Out-Of-My-Chair Gap in 2012: In the 2010 midterm elections Democrats suffered from a so-called “enthusiasm gap.”
If Dems agree to the tax plan just negotiated by the White House with Republican leaders, they’ll face a “why-should-I-get-up-out-of-my-chair” gap that will make 2010’s Dem enthusiasm seem like a pep rally by comparison.
It’s a $70,000 gift for every millionaire, financed by a gigantic hole in the federal budget that will put on the cutting board education, infrastructure, and everything else most other Americans need and want. ...
It’s not just the Dem base that worries about the deal. Independents who believe the dice are increasingly loaded in favor of the privileged and powerful are also concerned. ... Even Tea Partiers are convinced big government, big business, and Wall Street colluding against the rest of America. Only instead of blaming the powerful and privileged, the Tea Partiers are more comfortable taking aim at America’s so-called cultural and intellectual elites.
The point is that with income and wealth more concentrated at the top than it’s been since 1928, with money flooding politics as never before (much of it secret), and with cynicism about government at a post-World War II high, Obama’s tax deal couldn’t come at a worse time.
Enthusiasts on the right want to shrink government, and the deal sets them up nicely.
Most Democrats, many Independents, and everyone else who still sees government as our last bulwork against privilege and power, are aghast by the deal. They ask: How could it have come to this? And when 2012 rolls around, why should I get out of my chair?

    Posted by on Sunday, December 12, 2010 at 10:44 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (88)


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