Bold vs. Incremental: The Debate Shifts

Bill Scher

Five years ago, I interviewed now-Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman for, and I asked him about his past support for NAFTA-style trade and globalization. He responded:

I have to say those issues — they seemed terribly big issues a few years ago. And I’d like to imagine us back to a situation where they become top issues. But at this point, they’re really second-order.

The key thing, in terms of the state of the world right now, is that the United States has gone mad. Let’s get some return to fiscal and environmental and general governmental sanity in this country, and then we can talk about we manage globalization…

…My dream for America would be to return to a situation in which people of decency and good will can have vicious arguments of globalization again. Right now, that seems to be a luxury we can’t afford.

With the final chapter on the Bush Era about to close, it appears we may be able to have those sorts of constructive arguments again between who see themselves as progressives and moderates.

Conservative ideology was buried in the wake of the financial crisis, as now even President Bush has been compelled to partially nationalize the banking industry. In turn, the broader national debate is moving away from whether or not our government needs to be involved in our economy, to how best can government get our economy back on track?

Conservative NY TImes columnist David Brooks sees this debate coming, predicts progressives will win, and that it will be terrible:

The new situation will reopen old rifts in the Democratic Party. One the one side, liberals will argue (are already arguing) that it was deregulation and trickle-down economic policies that led us to this crisis. Fears of fiscal insolvency are overblown. Democrats should use their control of government and the economic crisis as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make some overdue changes. Liberals will make a full-bore push for European-style economic policies.

On the other hand, the remaining moderates will argue that it was excess and debt that created this economic crisis. They will argue (are arguing) that it is perfectly legitimate to increase the deficit with stimulus programs during a recession, but that these programs need to be carefully targeted and should sunset as the crisis passes. The moderates will stress that the country still faces a ruinous insolvency crisis caused by entitlement burdens.

Obama will try to straddle the two camps — he seems to sympathize with both sides — but the liberals will win. Over the past decade, liberals have mounted a campaign against Robert Rubin-style economic policies, and they control the Congressional power centers. Even if he’s so inclined, it’s difficult for a president to overrule the committee chairmen of his own party. It is more difficult to do that when the president is a Washington novice and the chairmen are skilled political hands. It is most difficult when the president has no record of confronting his own party elders. It’s completely impossible when the economy is in a steep recession, and an air of economic crisis pervades the nation.

What we’re going to see, in short, is the Gingrich revolution in reverse and on steroids. There will be a big increase in spending and deficits. In normal times, moderates could have restrained the zeal on the left. In an economic crisis, not a chance. The over-reach is coming. The backlash is next.

Beyond the wild assumptions of how a President Obama would work with Congress, Brooks also makes a fundamental assumption — commonplace among Establishment punditcrats — that “moderate restraint” is always necessary to counter ideological “zeal” — when it is quite possible for bold polices to be simultaneously and inherently pragmatic. (See “Deal, New.”) Such an assumption is exactly the kind of simplistic knee-jerk argument that centrist-style pundits (and wanna-be-centrist conservative pundits like Brooks) always chastise others for making.

Surely, debates will be had between progressives and moderates. But they do not always have to cause “rifts.” (Krugman’s dream of “vicious” arguments was said facetiously.) Especially when it is clear that both sides share big common ground.

Today, Institute for America’s Future offers that latest “Debate We Need” Op-Ad in the NY Times about health care, laying out core principles for comprehensive health care reform:

Health care is a right. We need clear rules requiring private insurance companies to cover everyone — even those with pre-existing conditions. And we need the security of knowing we can keep our current health plan, or we can choose a public plan like Medicare, so we’re not at the mercy of the same profit-down companies that got us into this mess!

Meanwhile, health care blogger Joe Paduda embraces the view that comprehensive reform is not possible in the short-term. Instead, he offers incremental steps increasing regulation on insurance companies, but holding off on bolder proposals such as establishing a public plan option.

Paduda and I don’t disagree much on the end goal. We only have a disagreement on the tactics how to get there. That’s not a small thing, since how we seize any “progressive moment” will be critical to our success. But it’s not something that has to result in a damaging rift either.

Paduda is concerned that the money simply isn’t there, and we’ll certainly hear similar arguments a lot in the next few months.

But the point behind making bold investments in health care, clean energy, infrastructure and education is because they will pay off long-term. The health care plan envisioned by Health Care for America Now would save $1 trillion in health care spending over 10 years, according to the Lewin Group. Similarly, the idea behind this banker rescue plan is injecting capital in the banks will stabilize the market and the investment will be recouped later.

Worrying too much about the short-term budget ledger when our foundation is crumbling and recession is looming, I would contend, is not pragmatic or responsible.

But let’s have that debate now, and have it constructively, so we can unify on shared principles and hit the ground running in January.

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