Gonna Be a Long Day

by Brien Jackson

Joe Klein makes a fairly stunning revelation about himself and journalism in general:

In 1993, I did a pretty shabby job of covering Bill Clinton’s economic plan. It was, in sum, a very good plan–it worked wonders for the economy–but I focused on the mishaps. (Clinton, for example, pulled the rug out from under House Democrats by offering a carbon tax, which they voted for…and then the President removed it from the bill.) Clinton couldn’t get any Republican votes for the package. A disaster! He had trouble getting Democratic votes for it; he had to beg Bob Kerrey for his vote to get it through the Senate. His presidency was in ruins! He had lost all credibility! (Actually, those of us who had focused on some big ugly trees rather than the blooming forest were the ones who had lost credibility.) It pains me to watch normally reasonable colleagues overreacting to Obama’s situation now–which is far less dire than Clinton’s was. Some form of stimulus will pass. If it doesn’t revive the economy, then more stimulus will be passed. Obama’s maintaining the proper balance of reaching out to Republicans, making some compromises, but staying firm on the need for a bill that includes public works as well as tax cuts. A Republican Senator, a vocal opponent of the bill, told me the other day: “The guy has really impressed us. We may not vote for the bill, and he may have to learn that you have to give us more than he wants to give us to make us happy, but he’s made a really strong start that will work to his benefit down the road.”

It’s sort of remarkable to see a journalist actually admitting this, but at the same time, there’s nothing shocking about the substance of this excerpt. As Ezra reminds us, this is basically what the media does, they find spending proposals that look sort of ridiculous or that don’t seem to make any sense and they attack them. Part of their public watch dog image I suppose. But that’s sort of a problem when spending a lot of money quickly, maybe on things you wouldn’t normally be looking at, is the point. To that end, Digby wants Obama to embrace the war of ideas:

If you want to defeat that dynamic, you have to take on the Republicans and win the ideological war. There are always Senators who want to stab their leadership in the back and make themselves feel powerful and there are always radicals and there are always villagers. And there are also true ideological differences among the Americans they represent. You can’t make them all get together and agree. It’s just not the way the system is designed. You have to win the votes of the people and then lead your party to pass your agenda.

I think that last part is right, but it really doesn’t fit in with engaging in the “ideological war,” and that, I think, would be an extreme folly. It’s natural, I suppose, for those of us who spend lots of time engaged in that area to want the President or our other political representatives to join us in the struggle, but Barack Obama is not the academic-in-chief, and turning around 20-30 years of cultural perception had better not be a pre-requisite to getting anything done. Indeed, that’s exactly backwards in regards to how public perception changes. FDR didn’t enact the New Deal after fundamentally changing the way people viewed government and their bootstraps, those views changed after people saw the effect the New Deal had on the economy relative to the laissez-faire approach of Herbert Hoover. Similarly, the cultural winds didn’t turn back to the right because they made any sort of convincing economic argument to back up their theories, but rather dumb luck. Reagan drilled home the “tax cuts” meme relentlessly in the early part of his administration, and then had the good fortune to have near perfect timing with Paul Volcker’s efforts at the Fed. But had Volcker come along 2 years later, and had the 1981-82 recession happened, instead, in 1983-84, Reagan would have been run out of town in a landslide, the following Democrat would have gotten credit for ending the stagflation economy, and the course of the last 25 years in American politics would be drastically different.

To this end, I think Digby is right to remind us how bitterly fought over Clinton’s economic package was, passing by only 1 vote in the House, and Al Gore’s tie-breaking vote (after Bob Kerrey’s reluctant support) in the Senate. But all the same, the close vote, and partisan make up of the bill’s supporters, didn’t change the effects of the bill on the economy. To that end, the important thing for Democrats and progressives to worry about is passing a bill, and passing more bills after that. If the economy approves over the long run, then the shift in political consciousness will come with it.