Krugman on the Democrats


11-08-07, 9:46 am

The liberal economist and New York Times op ed columnist Paul Krugman has just published a new book, THE CONSCIENCE OF A LIBERAL. It got a big write-up in The New York Review of Books by Michael Tomasky (11-22-07). Some of Krugman’s ideas will appeal to most reality based progressives. Here is a quote from his book, cited by Tomasky.

“The central fact of modern American political life is the control of the Republican Party by movement conservatives, whose vision of what American should be is completely antithetical to that of the progressive movement. Because of that control, the notion, beloved of political pundits, that we can make progress through bipartisan consensus is simply foolish.... “to be a progressive, then, means being a partisan --- at least for now. The only way a progressive agenda can be enacted is if Democrats have both the presidency and a large enough majority in Congress to overcome Republican opposition.”

The recent defection of two top Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Republican side on the Mukasey confirmation vote is a case in point. The Bush administration’s use of torture could have been decisively rejected rather than rewarded had the Democratic majority been greater than just a few votes.

Right now, the Democrats and Republicans are basically in different ideological camps over war, torture, health insurance, environmental issues, and a host of other major issues. The Schumer-Boxer defection over Mukasey was not just some bipartisan deal to get the Justice Department functioning again. It was a real betrayal of the progressive direction the American voters elected this Congress to advance. After all, the Democrats had the votes to stop Bush’s man and his equivocations on torture, yet he was approved anyway.

So, the question is, can the Democrats really push forward a progressive agenda even if they have both the presidency and a bigger majority? What will keep them from still failing to solidly push a progressive people’s agenda instead of caving in to pressures from the corporate plutocracy and the military-industrial complex?

Krugman tries to answer this question in an article in Monday’s New York Times (11-5-07).. Krugman thinks the long right wing control of national politics is about to end. He seems to envision a big Democratic sweep in 2008.

He is on tour now, promoting his book, and he says a good question that often comes up is, “How can you be so optimistic about the prospects for progressive change, when big money has so much influence on politics?”

Citing the research of recent polls, Krugman says that Americans have never, in recent history, been so fed up with how the government is being run and that two of the main reason’s are the failure of the misadventure in Iraq, and the growth of a new economic populism. There is widespread resentment against the abuses of the big corporations and the declining share of wealth available to the middle class.

“Longer-term studies of public opinion,” Krugman writes, “suggest a substantial leftward shift.” Well, the Democrats have controlled Congress for a year now and Bush’s agenda is still popping along with hardly any real challenges. Why hasn’t the “leftward shift” manifested itself more vigorously in the halls of Congress? One of the main reasons, according to Krugman, that “the Democrats are having trouble finding their voice is the influence of big money.”

Krugman cites some examples. First, the failure to get rid of tax loopholes that favor the very rich, at our expense, such as hedge fund managers who only have to pay a 15% tax rate on the millions (and billions) they rake in. Industry lobbyists have so far gotten the Democrats to drag their feet and delay taking any action. Another thing worries people who think the Democrats may sell out, and that is the closeness of Hillary Clinton to the MIC and its allies.

Krugman quotes an article from the Nation magazine: “Not only is Hillary more reliant on large donations and corporate money than her Democratic rivals, but advisors in her inner circle are closely affiliated with unionbusters, G.O.P. operatives, conservative media and other Democratic Party antagonists.” Hmmmm! It doesn’t seem as if we can expect too much from her.

Nevertheless, Krugman doesn’t think the cause is lost. The Democrats and Republicans are very different, he says. He mentions the fight for children’s health insurance and the fact that all the Democratic front-runners have new and progressive policies that they are pushing, as compared to the same old reactionary agenda pushed by the Republicans.

Nevertheless, he is worried about how things will turn out. He tells us about Al Smith, a great Democratic progressive, who ended economically right-wing and a critic of FDR and his policies. Klugman quotes H.L. Mencken’s explanation for the turnabout: “His association with the rich has apparently wobbled him and changed him. He has become a golf player.”

I see now where Klugman got the title for his NYT article: “Wobbled by Wealth?” I guess I’m not as optimistic as Klugman. I expect the worst from any capitalist party when it comes to fighting the MIC, et al. Krugman has a wait and see attitude. He ends his article thusly: “So, how wobbled are today’s Democrats? I guess we’ll find out.” Well, if the first year of the new Democratic Congress is any indication, progressives are going to have to push harder.

--Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at