How Krugman Is Wrong About "Centrist" Democrats

I'm wary of criticizing Paul Krugman. I'm a firm believer in the DeLong Rules of Krugman, which can be paraphrased very simply:

  1. Don't disagree with Paul Krugman.
  2. Re-read rule #1, you fucking moron.

Nonetheless, I think Krugman, in an otherwise excellent column, misstates the motivations behind the 'centrist' Democrats opposition to the public option for healthcare:

Yes, some of the balking senators receive large campaign contributions from the medical-industrial complex -- but who in politics doesn't? If I had to guess, I'd say that what's really going on is that relatively conservative Democrats still cling to the old dream of becoming kingmakers, of recreating the bipartisan center that used to run America.

I think he's right in that it's not about the campaign contributions. If their reluctance to support a public option were based solely on the electoral calculus of campaign donations versus popular support--that is, votes--the votes win hands down. Any Democratic senator in a swing state who needs independent and Republican votes can't afford to piss off the ~50% of Republicans and ~70% of independents who support a public option. To the extent that an Evan Bayh is supported by independents and Republicans, does he really think that these crossover voters are the ones who oppose a public option? (Actually, Bayh just might think so, since he's dumber than a fucking sack of hammers). So, if this is simple electoral politics, the obvious move is to screw your donors (of course, we are talking about 'new Democrats' who are the most inept politicians in recorded history, so who knows?).

So, Mad Biologist, how is this about money? It's simple: it's about life after politics. One of the dirty secrets about many, if not most, congressmen and senators is that they like Washington, D.C., rhetoric notwithstanding. They want to stay in town after they leave (or lose) office. Once you've tasted the Capital of the Free World, do you really want to go back to Pierre, South Dakota? (Tom Daschle comes to mind...). It's funny how many politicians, having made a career out of bashing War-Shing-Tun, don'

I can't blame them: I moved to Boston, and would be very happy to stay here. Places do grow on you. The problem comes, for politicians, when they have to find a job. For an ex-politician, there aren't that many 'straight paths' to getting your next job: lobbyist and corporate board member are the easiest and the most lucrative.

But if you get a reputation as someone who opposes large business interests, what chance do you have of getting either of these types of jobs? Sometimes, the quid pro quo is very crude and direct (e.g., Billy Tauzin), but the Village's political culture makes it clear what is acceptable. One should not be 'populist', or, heaven forbid, liberal.

The narcissistic motivation is far more subtle. Many ex-politicians are invited to join think tanks or, at least, be participants on panels and round tables (which often pay a decent stipend for 'marquee' names, such as an ex-senator). This allows them to, once again, for a brief, shining moment, walk into a room and have everyone treat them as a Very Important Person. And you get to blather on about policy without having to the heavy lifting of politics and politicking. Yet if you're tagged as the 'wrong sort', you won't get these perks either.

So, I think we're missing the big picture on corruption: it's the retirement, stupid.

Or maybe the centrists are just assholes.


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It's also group identification. The Ruling Class effect -- even a nobleman on a budget is still One of Us instead of the Great Unwashed. Spend a few terms in Washington, where the only people you see on a regular basis all wear tailored suits, vacation in places most people can't afford for their honeymoons, etc. and your view of the world aligns with theirs.

Ultimately it doesn't really matter whether you're a Captain of Industry or a Cabinet officer; it's still a different world and the people in it identify with each other much more than they do with us.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 23 Jun 2009 #permalink

D. C. Sessions: And notably, if you inhabit that different world, you never have to worry about paying for your healthcare... at the risk of sounding like a wannabe-Sotomayor, empathy (or the lack of it) is a key thing in policy decisions like this.

I don't know if it is any or all of this. It's probably that the insurance companies have scandal dirt on every politician they need.

You've got a point, and the answer may be simple but harsh: forbid politicians from taking positions as corporate Board members. I don't know what they'll do for a living, maybe teach.

Two words: Richard Gephardt

By the way this also explains why its impossible to prosecute
any of the folks responsible for torture. "Prosecute him? I was at his party just the other night!".

By Widemouth (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink

I've been living in the DC area for most of the last 20 years. Right now I'm in Detroit for another year, after which I return to the DC area. The Mad Biologist's argument rings absolutely true; the observation that "Beltway hating" politicians seem to leave DC once they've arrived is something I've noticed for years. Life in the Imperial Center is pretty damn sweet, especially compared to vast swathes of the country. The contrast between Detroit and DC is jaw-dropping (although there are certainly areas of great deprivation in the BalWash region).

The Stiftung Leo Strauss has some interesting remarks about Beltway life.

I think it's a combination of things, but the most important is that they come from states where a huge percentage of the population acquires its view of reality from Fox News and Limbaugh.

Baucus, Nelson et al don't really oppose public option on principle, not even on deficit issues relative to the importance of reform. They all express strong support for significant reform, even if you can argue how strong reform could be without the public option. However, support for it will be spun locally into allowing a "government takeover" and being soft on socialism, and in those environments those attacks will tend to stick. They will be on the defensive constantly. They need to be able to show that they "stood up to" those who favor Federal Government solutions "for everything" if they are going to be re-elected.

That's why the state "opt-out" end run -- a fig leaf for the centrists -- is a strategy for a devastating Senate victory in the neighborhood of from 62% to 65% versus 38% or even 35%. Moreover, no state will actually have the guts after a local battle to pull the opt-out switch via a referendum or legislative vote -- what, denying the citizens of the state even the freakin' option to choose a less expensive plan? -- so it's also a strategy for a 100%, or total, policy victory.

Remember, every state exchange would show the public option as a choice (hopefully a strong one, which becomes more palatable to the balkers with the opt-out right) until affirmative and politically dangerous action is taken: not even to allow the citizens of the state to choose what's best for them! It will galvanize progressives and populists in those states, giving them greater local credibility and continuing to build the 50-state strategy. Opt-out simply ain't gonna happen, anywhere, no matter how Red the state is.

By urban legend (not verified) on 10 Oct 2009 #permalink