Monday, February 11, 2008

Rich, and Krugman, and pie, oh my!

Over the course of the Democratic primary season, readers of the New York Times have been able to read/watch as a slow-motion, literary pie fight broke out between two of the Times’ columnists. Well, readers, my advice to you today is don’t wear your nice clothes, ‘cause someone broke out the mixed berry.

To be honest, for most of the last year, this wasn’t a pie fight in the true sense. Last February, Paul Krugman wrote a column praising John Edwards’s proposal for universal health coverage—at the time, Edwards was the only one with a detailed plan. Over the course of the summer and fall, as Barack Obama, and then Hillary Clinton, released their healthcare plans, Krugman compared them to what was already on the table. In the economist-turned-columnist, and earnest Bush critic Krugman’s eyes, Edwards had stepped up with a solid plan well ahead of the others, and it set a standard that was basically met by the Clinton camp, but was not equaled by Obama. As Krugman sees it, the Illinois Senator’s plan will leave millions uncovered, and Obama’s talk of “post-partisan” compromising might not even net a program as comprehensive as promised.

Krugman has criticized Obama’s comfort with right-wing frames for arguments about a variety of issues such as healthcare, social security, and the economy. And, Krugman has also taken the knife to Obama’s economic stimulus plan, calling it the most conservative of what was then the three main Democrats in the presidential race.

As a result, last December, the Obama campaign took a couple of stabs at attacking Krugman and his analysis. The attempts were as factually wrong as they were strategically bone-headed. It was not the campaign’s finest hour.

Meanwhile, in the Sunday paper, the Times’ one-time drama critic and now regular liberal Op-Ed columnist moved from reliable and often stirring attacks on the Bush-Cheney cabal, to acting (as one friend of mine put it) as Obama’s man-tampon.

I will admit to a fondness for that epithet, but, as they say, it’s funny because it’s true. Almost seemingly overnight, Rich became so enamored of the “politics of hope” that almost every Sunday, his column reads like a mash note.

I don’t criticize Rich for his choice in candidates, mind you, he is entitled to it, and, I will add, he is eloquent in his advocacy. But, to my eye, Rich’s Obama ardor is qualitatively different from Krugman’s Obama aversion (or even from what was previously PK’s near-endorsement of John Edwards).

Paul Krugman has spent years focusing on the “great unraveling” of America’s economic democracy, and has used his column repeatedly over the last year to draw attention to what presidential candidates might do to restore or exacerbate the problem. Krugman’s academic biases, such as they are, led him to repeatedly praise the economic proposals of John Edwards as the 2008 campaign heated up. By way of contrast, he was less impressed with some of Hillary Clinton’s ideas, and even less, still, with those of Barack Obama. The suspension of the Edwards campaign, coming on top of the Obama camp’s attacks on Krugman and, more pointedly, on health insurance mandates as a path toward universal coverage, has only served to sharpen the columnist’s arguments.

Frank Rich, by contrast, has fallen hard for Obama’s style and promise. The apparent openness, energy, and optimism of the Obama candidacy seem, to Rich, a ready antidote to years of cynical Republican poison. As an easy tangent, the Obama way contrasts quite favorably to the inside-the-Beltway “wisdom” and overly (and overtly) strategic triangulation of Hillary Clinton and her drive to (re)occupy the White House.

This is not to say that Rich is disinterested in issues. Long a critic of the Iraq war, he correctly identifies Clinton as one of those in Congress in 2002 that voted to authorize Bush’s folly. Obama, of course, though not a member of Congress at the time, was a vocal critic of the Iraqi incursion during the run-up to the war.

But Rich’s current critiques, positive or negative, such as they are, don’t often feature voting records or policy details, no matter which candidate he writes about. Rich’s Sunday columns tend to examine tactics, tone, and personality—and he is especially and increasingly disdainful of Hillary Clinton’s expression of those qualitative variables.

The contrast in the columnists’ style has grown sharper as this primary season has evolved, and, with the downgrading of the Edwards campaign, Rich and Krugman increasingly represent divergent sides in the clash of candidates, as well. For most readers, the toothsome eloquence of the two usually makes for a tasty snack, but, in the last 48 hours, the choice of pastry, and the velocity at which it is thrown, seems to have changed.

On Sunday, Frank Rich threw the first pies of the week, in his column, Next Up for the Democrats: Civil War:

However boring, this show [Senator Clinton’s Hallmark Channel Town Hall on February 4] was a dramatic encapsulation of how a once-invincible candidate ended up in a dead heat, crippled by poll-tested corporate packaging that markets her as a synthetic product leeched of most human qualities. What’s more, it offered a naked preview of how nastily the Clintons will fight, whatever the collateral damage to the Democratic Party, in the endgame to come.

For a campaign that began with tightly monitored Web “chats” and then planted questions at its earlier town-hall meetings, a Bush-style pseudo-event like the Hallmark special is nothing new, of course. What’s remarkable is that instead of learning from these mistakes, Mrs. Clinton’s handlers keep doubling down.

Less than two weeks ago she was airlifted into her own, less effective version of “Mission Accomplished.” Instead of declaring faux victory in Iraq, she starred in a made-for-television rally declaring faux victory in a Florida primary that was held in defiance of party rules, involved no campaigning and awarded no delegates. As Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said, it was “the Potemkin village of victory celebrations.”

. . . .

The campaign’s other most potent form of currency remains its thick deck of race cards. This was all too apparent in the Hallmark show. In its carefully calibrated cross section of geographically and demographically diverse cast members — young, old, one gay man, one vet, two union members — African-Americans were reduced to also-rans. One black woman, the former TV correspondent Carole Simpson, was given the servile role of the meeting’s nominal moderator, Ed McMahon to Mrs. Clinton’s top banana. Scattered black faces could be seen in the audience. But in the entire televised hour, there was not a single African-American questioner, whether to toss a softball or ask about the Clintons’ own recent misadventures in racial politics.

The Clinton camp does not leave such matters to chance. This decision was a cold, political cost-benefit calculus. In October, seven months after the two candidates’ dueling church perorations in Selma, USA Today found Hillary Clinton leading Mr. Obama among African-American Democrats by a margin of 62 percent to 34 percent. But once black voters met Mr. Obama and started to gravitate toward him, Bill Clinton and the campaign’s other surrogates stopped caring about what African-Americans thought. In an effort to scare off white voters, Mr. Obama was ghettoized as a cocaine user (by the chief Clinton strategist, Mark Penn, among others), “the black candidate” (as Clinton strategists told the Associated Press) and Jesse Jackson redux (by Mr. Clinton himself).

The result? Black America has largely deserted the Clintons. In her California primary victory, Mrs. Clinton drew only 19 percent of the black vote. The campaign saw this coming and so saw no percentage in bestowing precious minutes of prime-time television on African-American queries.

And, today, with Hate Springs Eternal, Krugman tosses back:

The bitterness of the fight for the Democratic nomination is, on the face of it, bizarre. Both candidates still standing are smart and appealing. Both have progressive agendas (although I believe that Hillary Clinton is more serious about achieving universal health care, and that Barack Obama has staked out positions that will undermine his own efforts). Both have broad support among the party’s grass roots and are favorably viewed by Democratic voters.

Supporters of each candidate should have no trouble rallying behind the other if he or she gets the nod.

Why, then, is there so much venom out there?

I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody. I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again.

What’s particularly saddening is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the application of “Clinton rules” — the term a number of observers use for the way pundits and some news organizations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent.

The prime example of Clinton rules in the 1990s was the way the press covered Whitewater. A small, failed land deal became the basis of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investigation, which never found any evidence of wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part, yet the “scandal” became a symbol of the Clinton administration’s alleged corruption.

My favorite pie is cherry—how about you?

Interestingly enough, both columnists seem to like “mission accomplished” flavor, though Rich and Krugman credit the other’s preferred candidate with the recipe. OK, not the recipe—that rightfully belongs to the shit-pie maker Bush—but the columnists both like the metaphor of the current president’s clownish performance on the deck of the USS Lincoln for pie-throwing purposes, and that’s probably not an accident. The content and the quality of political leadership has been so soured by Republican rule that such crust serves as the base baseline by which future leaders are to be mismeasured.

And that’s too bad.

Taking the long view, both Krugman and Rich have been appreciated critics of the Bush Presidency and its often all too willing Congressional enablers on both sides of the aisle. Krugman has been especially on target when hurling a variety of items harder and sharper than baked goods at Bush’s economic evils—and he has been a consistent critic of Iraq policy, just as he has been a steady advocate for universal healthcare. And Krugman’s solid track record as a harsh critic of Bush policy gives his appraisals of this year’s campaign an anchor I find hard to ignore. I would rather see liberal advocates push platforms than pitch pie.

But, the sad, sad truth of this week’s tart escalation is that both columnists are mostly right. The Clinton campaign has given surrogates far too much freedom to introduce race as an attack, in-and-of itself, against Barack Obama. I don’t think it is accidental; I do think it is distasteful.

The Obama team has allowed its own brand of divisiveness to gain a toehold. The aforementioned comfort with Republican attacks on Democratic policies dovetails all too easily with the ready supply of Hillary hatred that exists across many different parts of the national electorate. The “Harry and Louise” style pamphlets that the Obama campaign used against the Clinton health plan are a perfect recent example.

In addition, I think Krugman is not alone in sensing a “cult of personality” developing in segments of the Obama base. I can’t accuse the candidate of purposefully cultivating it, but I fear he is too ready to capitalize on it as a means to an end. I believe in the importance of inspirational leadership, but I care more about where it leads. I worry about Hillary Clinton’s ability to inspire all the new, young voters (and the new, not-so-young voters) that Obama has brought into the process, but I also worry that those voters will show less allegiance to the process or the progressive agenda than they do to their current standard-bearer of choice.

Additionally, I think that many, Rich included, overlook how inspirational a viable female candidate might be to some voters.

I have previously inveighed against covering the horserace in lieu of the horses. I have warned of the establishment media’s affinity for identity frames. And I have urged the candidates to stress issues and policy differences, and save their brickbats for the Bush regime and the next Republican pretender. If we are to discuss style, we should make it a discussion of the awful style of politics practiced by Republicans—dating, as Krugman illustrates, all the way back to Richard Nixon.

I call it Clinton rules, but it’s a pattern that goes well beyond the Clintons. For example, Al Gore was subjected to Clinton rules during the 2000 campaign: anything he said, and some things he didn’t say (no, he never claimed to have invented the Internet), was held up as proof of his alleged character flaws.

For now, Clinton rules are working in Mr. Obama’s favor. But his supporters should not take comfort in that fact.

For one thing, Mrs. Clinton may yet be the nominee — and if Obama supporters care about anything beyond hero worship, they should want to see her win in November.

For another, if history is any guide, if Mr. Obama wins the nomination, he will quickly find himself being subjected to Clinton rules. Democrats always do.

But most of all, progressives should realize that Nixonland is not the country we want to be. Racism, misogyny and character assassination are all ways of distracting voters from the issues, and people who care about the issues have a shared interest in making the politics of hatred unacceptable.

Frank Rich also closes with an appeal for a campaign endgame free of “race-tinged” infighting, but he never quite brings it around to a universal plea. For all the deep dish served by Rich, he doesn’t seem to yet comprehend that all of us will have to eat some crow before this over.

For me, a long-time Clinton critic with what I believe is a healthy mistrust of Obama-brand post-partisanship, I find Krugman’s plea for unification around issues more appealing than Rich’s pointed, partisan warnings about some very putrid pie. Which is both obvious and odd.

Obvious because, candidates aside, I am firm believer in hope, with a deep desire to change the way politics is practiced in post-Nixon America. I care about issues much more than I will ever care about identity. I believe in movements more than men or women, and I never expect any president to be any more than human.

However, it is odd, I feel, because the Krugman column advocates for Clinton’s platform, but seems to describe a candidate that sounds more like Obama. Rich, conversely, overwhelmingly (and sometimes overbearingly) pro-Obama, writes a column very much in the style of the old, and, as he sees it, Clintonesque politics he claims to despise.

So, who wins in this week’s tart toss? The easy answer would be “everyone,” because we all benefit from an open and productive discussion. The easier answer would be “no one,” because no matter how substantive and subtle the Democrats’ discussion might be around their big table, the establishment media will still pick up the pie.

But my final answer will be Paul Krugman because Krugman’s column reads as a response to Rich. Indeed, my guess (and I’m not alone here) is that Krugman reads Rich more than Rich reads Krugman. Krugman is dialoging with Rich, and (perhaps again bizarrely, given their preferences) is writing more about a dialogue that is beyond the Republican era politics of fear and invective.

Rich, on the other hand, relies on those very two seemingly un-Obama-like tactics to craft his pro-Obama point. That’s a shame. Not to say that all the Clinton camp’s efforts to frame Obama are clean or noble, and not to ignore the very real threat to party unity that any attempt to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations—as currently configured—will pose, but constructing an argument for Obama by reminding all of us how and why to be anti-Clinton comes off as half-baked.

And, by stoking the flames of intra-party factionalism with the fearful specter of a stolen convention half a year before we all get to Denver, Rich just serves to cook up more pie—one that, no matter who you want to win the nomination, leaves a bitter taste.

(cross-posted on The Seminal and Daily Kos)

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