Monday, September 27, 2010

Clive Crook dreams up a vital center for Obama

Clive Crook has always struck me as tone-deaf on American politics, if sometimes acute on policy.  Today, though, he brought me up short and made me think anew about Obama's conduct and messaging -- though I think that in the end, again, he's substantively wrong about how Obama should position himself.

Crook has long insisted that Obama's mistake has been to govern too far from the left, alienating the American center -- notwithstanding his acknowledgement that the Republicans are sunk in extreme right wing demagoguery, and that the Democrats' approach to the stimulus and health care reform are centrist by any sane measure. Today he comes up with an intriguing explanation for these seemingly incommensurate observations:
Again and again, Mr Obama has acted as though the middle of the electorate mattered less to his administration than the Democratic base. This is not to say he insisted on leftist policies. He usually gave way, when he had to, to conservative Democrats in Congress. He went along with a fiscal stimulus that included a lot of tax cuts. He went along with health reform that excluded the so-called public option. These and other compromises disappointed the left. But the message to the electoral centre was consistent: Mr Obama would have let the left have its way if he could.

What he should have done – and what he ought to do from now on – is simple. Instead of blessing leftist solutions, then retreating feebly to more centrist positions under pressure, he should have identified the centrist policies the country could accept and advocated those policies.

Mr Obama should have led the argument for tax cuts in the stimulus. He should have led a national discussion on long-term fiscal control, rather than tacitly accepting the progressives’ view that long-term deficits are not a pressing concern. He should have led the argument against the public option for healthcare. The outcomes might have been the same, but Mr Obama would have been given credit for moderating the ambitions of the Democratic left. This was one of the main things centrist voters elected him to do. 
There is some kind of insight here. Obama has been pushed to the center -- or, in the case of the stimulus, started there -- and been hit from both sides. Regarding the Bush tax cuts, I noticed the same conspicuous omission (okay, duh, it's conspicuous) that Crook flags below, with same "here we go again" feeling:
The perfect illustration of Mr Obama’s strategic blindness is the current row over the Bush tax cuts. The pattern is the same. Mr Obama wants taxes to rise next year for families making more than $250,000 and to stay put for households making less. This is the position of the Democratic base and a litmus-test of progressive integrity. Republicans and most conservative Democrats want all the tax increases to be deferred.

Note that the president has not promised to veto an extension of low rates for all taxpayers. Once again, his possible retreat to the more centrist position is mapped out. Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are split. Fearing voters’ response to any kind of tax increase, the party’s Senate leadership has just announced that it will not vote on the subject until after the midterms.
I have also wondered more than once about Obama's apparent negotiating strategy, which seems to involve giving up early on what you calculate you can't get, perhaps while holding out for lower-profile priorities -- for example, signaling he wouldn't fight for the public option, while holding out tenaciously for a Medicare oversight panel and an excise tax on expensive plans. 

Still, Crook's purported solution won't work.  In one major case, Obama did exactly what Crook prescribes: from February 2010 until the PPACA passed, he argued long, hard and in detail before the whole nation that the Democrats' HCR bill was "pretty centrist" (with a largely Republican pedigree), that all its component parts were interdependent, and that it was the right set of adjustments for our unique (and I would say dysfunctional) existing healthcare system.

Crook might say that Obama should have championed that "centrist" mix much earlier. But therein lies I think his central misunderstanding of U.S. politics: a failure to take into account how a president can effectively co-govern with a Congressional majority from his own party. In the U.S., while the ideological center of the President's party is not to his right, its ability to enact legislation is -- given the de facto 60-vote requirement in the Senate, the substantial blue dog contingent in the House, and the complete Republican stonewall, . Determined not to try to frog-march the legislative branch or foreclose its options, Obama has generally held back from drawing lines in the sand.  Now, on the tax front, he unquestionably does not want a compromise to the right of sunsetting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest. But he also doesn't want to foreclose some kind of compromise, or box in Democrats in conservative districts. In this case I find his refusal to join a line in the sand frustrating. But let's reserve judgment until the results are in.

Crook's read on the politics of the Bush tax cuts makes no sense:
This post-partisan president is telling a centre-right country, which reveres upward mobility, that he sees a two-earner professional household making anything more than $250,000 a year as no different from the parasitic “millionaires and billionaires” (he uses the phrase in every speech) who finally have it coming. This message, which would go down badly in Britain, let alone in the US, beams out not just to the 2 or 3 per cent of taxpayers who make more than $250,000, but to the far larger number who one day hope to make that much and to those, now retired, who made that much in their highest-earning years.
The Bush tax cuts are the foundation of the United States' structural deficit.  Obama is trying to salvage a sliver of their sunsetting, allowing rates for the wealthiest to reset to the level of the Clinton years -- lower than the rates at the end of Reagan's term.  Wealthy Brits would doubtless be in transports if they could pay Clinton-era US rates. Nor is Obama by any stretch of the imagination a wild-eyed wealth-bashing populist. Crook simply chooses to hear the populist fringe of a centrist message, which is that the US can't afford Bush-era rates for the wealthiest, who don't need the Bush-era giveaway.

Crook has written on many occasions that the US needs a broader tax base -- that is, higher taxes further down the food chain, probably a VAT. Perhaps he's right.  But restoring Clinton-era rates on the wealthiest is a vital interim step, with strong popular support. For Obama to continuing his three-year advocacy for such a step is not a political error. Refraining from threatening to veto a tax bill that sustains all the Bush cuts, if only for a season, may be such an error.

More broadly, Obama can't champion the center as Crook defines it because the center in American politics is way off-right.  Crook indirectly acknowledged this in the health care debate, declaring that he approved of the substance of the PPACA while decrying Democratic hubris in passing it in the face of unfavorable polling. Since he also acknowledged the destructive force of Republican demagoguery on this front, his position was incoherent.  How could Obama champion a solution to the right of the bill so tortuously crafted, when that bill itself was the product of a thirty-year swing to the right?  Grabbing the center on Crook's terms is capitulation.

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