Monday, April 12, 2010

Cllive Crook's disconnect

I do not understand Clive Crook. What seems to me a persistent disconnect in his thinking about U.S. politics and policy is in full evidence in his column today:
A moderate and intelligent opposition to the Democrats’ policies is badly needed. Apparently, nobody in the Republican party aims to provide it. Republican leaders seem intent on presenting the party’s angriest, most stupid and least tolerant face. Some leading Republicans who are moderate by temperament and conviction – John McCain, for instance – are being pushed to the right in primary election contests with more conservative opponents. Others, such as Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, are disowning their previously expressed views or just keeping their heads down.

Republicans are right to say that the Obama administration has over-reached. Democrats failed to convince the country that their healthcare reform was the right solution to an obvious and pressing problem, yet passed their law anyway. Many voters are angry about this, and entitled to be. Also, despite the administration’s denials, the reform will most likely add to public borrowing, which was on a dangerously high trajectory to begin with. Again, they are right to be concerned.
The disconnect seems to be between Crook's recognition that the Republican party has given itself over entirely to fantasist extremism and his insistence that Obama and the Democratic Congress have governed from the far left and have in some fundamental sense violated the will of the electorate.
Crook understands that the lack of universal health insurance in the U.S. is a travesty.  He has written in depth about the virtues of the French system of universal coverage delivered through private insurers and noted its elements in common with the just-passed U.S. reform law. He understands that Republicans have relentlessly demaogogued the plan, that their scaremongering regarding the new law's provisions to cut Medicare spending belies their professed willingness to shred entitlement spending long-term a la Paul Ryan, whose radical budget proposal they have in any case shied away from endorsing.  He acknowledges the demagoguery and asserts that it seems to be working short-term:

In narrow electoral terms, the Republicans’ militant posture is working. This dynamic has disturbing implications. A populist-right Republican party is not a party of fiscal conservatives. It is a party of tax-cutters and middle-class entitlement protectors – budget deficits be damned. A populist-right Republican party has no trouble calling for lower taxes, opposing cuts in Medicare (the programme that poses the greatest fiscal danger), and deploring public borrowing, all at the same time. This, in fact, has been its line on healthcare reform.

Finally, he laments that there is no center in U.S. politics -- except within the Democratic party which "for all its faults, is a broad coalition."

Yet at the same time Crook continues to insist, as he has in column after column, that Obama has governed from the far left, that the Democrats were irresponsible in passing HCR because polls show that a majority of Americans oppose it, that its cost controls will not work, that its $500 billion in Medicare cuts over ten years will not be enacted, and that it will increase the deficit over time.

Crook does not acknowledge that Obama and the Democratic Congress were elected by wide margins on a platform in which healthcare reform was the centerpiece; that the enacted law more or less precisely mirrors the reform plan that Obama and all the Democratic presidential candidates proposed during the campaign, except that it lacks the public option, which Crook opposed; that the plan is in fact composed almost entirely of prior Republican proposals and closely resembles the Massachusetts plan signed and in part designed by Republican Governor Mitt Romney; that all prior major cuts to Medicare spending, excepting one poorly designed one, have been enacted and have generally yielded more savings than the CBO forecast.; that the bill's cost control measures have been widely praised by economists and health experts across the political spectrum; that the polling on the public's attitudes toward hcr remains ambiguous; and that if the Republican demagoguery he documents has worked (short-term at least) as he asserts, it would be political cowardice to bow to it.

Persisting with the Herculean task of enacting a centrist, market-based, deficit-reducing health reform plan to forestall the meltdown of the current U.S. healthcare delivery system is not governing from the far left. It's creating a center in one party when the other refuses to participate in responsible governance.

Crook is right that Obama "needs" liberal or centrist Republicans But he seems to think that their absence is a short-term electoral ploy, when in fact it reflects a dangerous long-term degeneration in one of our two major parties -- and therefore in the fabric of our democracy. Obama's centrism is the sound of one hand clapping. But it's still centrism.

Crook's failure to follow through the implications of his own critique of the Republicans leads him, I think, to severely scramble cause and effect:
Liberal Republicans were already a rare species. Healthcare reform, and the electorate’s reaction to the Democrats’ plan, seems to have extinguished the breed entirely.
Crook seems to have missed the fact that those few Republicans who might have conceivably been dubbed "moderate" based on past behavior one by one made it clear, from July through December, that they were not negotiating in good faith, that they had thrown in with the leadership's complete rejectionism. One by one they joined the liar's chorus - from Grassley's support of the death panel myth to Snowe's incoherent claims that the negotiating process moved too quickly and that she was somehow shut out of it. He seems oblivious to the possibility that Republicans' year-long  misrepresentation of the bills working their way through both chambers may have had something to do with "the electorate's reaction to the Democrats' plan.'  In other words, that an extremist (largely media driven) takeover of one party in a two party system might poison the well of public opinion.

Crook does have a point that a center is lacking, in the Democratic party as well as on the national political scene as a whole, when it comes to tax policy.  Like David Brooks, he has long argued that Obama has boxed himself in on the long-term deficit front by pledging not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $200,000 per year or any family making less than $250,000. That is true. But that too is a side effect of Republican extremism. When one party routinely denounces with the most extremist rhetoric any attempt to raise taxes on anyone, that radically restrains the responsible party.

Obama knows that to tackle the structural deficit, the U.S. will have to raise some taxes on some people earning less than $200k.  That's why he wants the cover of a commission. The Republicans also know it -- hence their opposition to a commission that would expose their own prescriptions as snake oil and give the President cover to do the right thing.  Crook recognizes this:
Is there a Republican out there willing to support a simplification of the tax system that, while lowering marginal rates, raises revenues significantly above their historic average? Even after every plausible economy on the spending side has been made, that is going to be necessary. So far as I am aware, not a single prominent Republican is willing to say so.
Hence his lament that the country needs "liberal" Republicans to push the Democrats to the center. That is true as far as it goes. But we're not going to get any for the foreseeable future -- not unless the economy roars back, the Republicans get creamed again in 2012 or 2014, and they subsequently at last begin a crawl back toward sanity.  So where does that leave Obama and the Democrats?  Struggling to create a center solo.

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