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Kerry and the Possibility of Greatness

As a political analyst, Tom Oliphant is the equivalent of a Red Sox broadcaster, always certain that his own homeboys are going all the way this year, not quite finding the distance. It's got its limits as analysis. But on the subject of just those New England politicians who float his bowtie, he is indispensable. I found his argument for the potential that John Kerry could be not just a non-Bush president but in fact a great one, in the current American Prospect, extraordinarily convincing. And this has really troubled me, because I thought I had a grasp of Kerry. I thought that after seven years spent observing a lot of Senators, sometimes in their public roles and sometimes in meetings of 2-3 Senators and some staff, I was correct in dismissing him. He hadn't been much of a presence, didn't seem to have figured out how to make his way in that absurd, entrepreneurial institution, didn't seem even to have a driving passion. I had a sense of him as sort of an incomplete person, unable to find much of a reason to be in public life except for his own sense of himself and a conviction that one can never be too careful. It was a view of him very similar to William Saletan's, expressed often in Slate.

And, I think, wrong. Or maybe right at the time, and for that context, but not right anymore. I still don't quite know how he did it, but this nominee -- despite going into January stuck in a pack of Dean alternatives -- won the nomination more smoothly than any non-incumbent in history, and has raised five times as much money as any Democrat in history: there is some real talent there. I'm certain that his marriage played a role here in centering him around a human purpose. Oliphant says as much.

Citing Ted Kennedy, Oliphant singles out Kerry's leadership, with McCain, of the mid-90s committee to investigate MIA's and POW's in Vietnam as an example of his discipline and skill. I agree with that. The POW commission was an amazing achievement, because it went straight at the most deeply held convictions of its key constituency. The people who demanded and won this commission, and who hung on its every word, believed or profoundly wanted to believe that their loved ones, 20 years later, were still waiting to be released from their Hanoi torture chambers. With McCain, Kerry managed a process that all but silenced this constituency, and even helped lead toward normalization of relations with Vietnam. My mistake was that I thought that achievement was an exception to the rule that Kerry was basically ineffectual. In reality, it was an achievement very much on a par with passing major legislation, and probably an achievement that has more to do with what a president must do well than any typical Senate credential. It was not an exception, just another way of doing things.

Oliphant also says the following of Kerry:

Kerry?s other, overarching political thought is that the election of a Democratic president this year would liberate an unknowable number of governance-minded Republicans from the iron grip of the GOP?s congressional leadership, no matter who is in the majority. In the House of Representatives especially, the party discipline Tom DeLay can invoke on President Bush?s behalf would almost by definition be less powerful under a President Kerry. On any given domestic issue, there would be 20 or more Republicans available with the proper enticements and atmosphere. For those to the left of center who recall that JFK?s belief in 1960 was that the country could do better, not that it could be revolutionized, Kerry is the kind of person and politician I believe to be worth trusting for this grubby, central task of coalition building.

This has been my main argument in the set of posts I've written in the category, "The 1/21 project." Whichever party controls Congress, Kerry's only option is to work like hell to build working alliances with the dozen or more House members and the half-dozen Senators who might be able to take their own path. But this is the first that I have heard that understanding attributed to Kerry. If indeed he does understand this point, it would be a good idea for him to say it, strongly and persuasively. As important as it will be to build the coalitions that can win on issues like revamping the tax code, it is equally important that his natural allies understand what he is doing. I think those who excoriate Clinton for selling out liberal policies would feel a little differently if he had done more to convey to them just how limited his range of options was. Kerry likewise needs to show --whether on Thursday night or later -- that he understands that the path back to normalcy will be a long slog full of compromises, but that only from a position of normalcy can we begin to move forward on the things we want to change, like health care and income inequality.

Liberals are already poised to relive the dead predictable cycle of triumphalism and disappointment. The other day, I heard someone make the argument, "we need grass-roots groups in 2005 that can push Kerry, make him do the right thing, and occasionally even support him." I agree about the need, but would reverse the priorities.

As for the potential for greatness in Kerry, I can imagine it. The fact that he seems to understand how he has to govern is one indication; Oliphant has many others. Success in the presidency seems to elude prediction, because the requirements of the job are so different from other political offices as well as most non-political jobs. Given what I thought I knew about Kerry, I'm surprised to find myself voting for him not just as the anti-Bush, but with an enthusiasm about his ability to succeed.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Losing vs. Losing

Thomas Frank had an interesting op-ed in the Times on Friday, making the point that the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage was not only bound to lose, but was designed to lose, because losing is the only way to reinforce the underlying "narrative" or "pseudopopulist theatre" of the right:

Losing is prima facie evidence that the basic conservative claim is true: that the country is run by liberals; that the world is unfair; that the majority is persecuted by a sinister elite. And that therefore you, my red-state friend, had better get out there and vote as if your civilization depended on it.

This is certainly true. There is no doubt that on gay marriage, the administration at least would rather have the issue than have the ban. That's because they don't actually give a shit what people do; it's just an easy opportunity to stir up some hatred.

But there are different kinds of losing, and I don't think the plan was to get only 48 votes in the Senate. This is hugely significant. The narrative that Frank describes depends on the idea that an elitist minority is blocking the obvious conviction of of most ordinary people that gay marriage is a threat to...something. 48 votes means that the obstacle to the amendment is not that it requires 66 votes in the Senate, and it's not the annoying filibuster rule requiring 60 votes to end debate, it's simply the fact that their majority leader can't deliver the votes of his own Republicans. That's not much of a basis for an electoral crusade. I am pretty sure that if one had asked Rove, Frist, or any of the strategists behind the decision to pursue this issue, "Would you force a vote on this amendment if you thought there was a likelihood you would only get 48 votes?," I'm pretty sure most of them would have said no. It was a huge mistake. To get some benefit from the amendment, they would have to either, win a majority, or win the votes of a few Democrats from swing states in which they currently are running ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage -- for example, Ron Wyden of Oregon, already a profile in cowardice in my view for his support of the Medicare prescription drug bill -- which would legitimate those initiatives and put the Senator in a tough position. But none of this came to pass, and in fact, the most respected Republicans such as McCain instead gave credibility to the idea that conservatives could oppose the amendment.

Early in the time when I worked in the Senate, during the first Bush administration, I once put together an amendment for my boss, an elaborate proposal to take part of the cost of a tax bill, and convert it into spending on urban problems. We knew we would lose, but just wanted to make a point that the bill was skewed in favor of business tax breaks. But because there were a dozen reasons for Senators to oppose Senator Bradley's amendment -- it violated budget rules, it might not benefit their districts, etc. -- I think we got 17 votes. When I got back to my office from the Senate floor that afternoon, a colleague teased me mercilessly: it was fine to offer an amendment just to make a point. But when he did it, he made sure he could get 30 or 35 votes. That's what you needed to make a point. If you only got 16 votes, it meant you just hadn't done a good job and no one would take you or your boss seriously. Of course, he was right. And the threshold for being taken seriously and making a point, as the party in power on an issue that supposedly has majority support, is not 30 votes or 48, but a very solid majority.

But perhaps I take these minutiae of the Senate process too seriously. After all, if no one knows anything about them, they can't have much impact in the outside world, can they?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

NASCAR campaigning

I should admit that my underlying analysis of U.S. electoral politics is not much more than a cheap knock-off of Ruy Teixera's. Like a $20 "Ronex" watch, it might fool the unsuspecting, but not for long.

I think this post of Ruy's is not only thoroughly persuasive as usual, but I suspect it may be the story of the 2004 election. History books of the future, given two sentences to explain this election might say that Bush, having polarized the electorate, staked his reelection on energizing and maximizing turnout among his strongest supporters, using social issues as well as beating the drums of war, but that strategy was doomed to failure for obvious demographic reasons.

As James Carville says in the Washington Post story on which Ruy bases his analysis, "It's a new way to run for president...usually you quietly shore up your base and aggressively court the swing voter, Bush is aggressively shoring up his base and quietly courting the swing voter."

Running for president the old way almost always depended on how smoothly you can execute a difficult maneuver: cut as far to the right or the left as you need to to win the nomination and secure the base -- but no further -- then accelerate out of the turn and get back as deftly as possible to the center. It helps to have a single theme that can serve both parts of the maneuver, like "compassionate conservatism" for Bush 2000, because it makes the move look smoother. Often, the fundamental analysis of presidential races comes down to who made that transition more smoothly. In 1980, for example, Reagan cut beautifully from his announcement in Philadelphia, Mississippi (apparently at the specific encouragement of Trent Lott, who knew the signal it would send to his constituency), to a tamer, optimistic and acceptable conservatism a few months later. Al Gore executed the maneuver a little too obviously as he careened from pledging in the primaries never to touch Medicaid to a few weeks later, nomination secured, pledging to run a budget surplus "every single year" and picking Lieberman as his running mate, then back to a modified populism by the end, which was the right note.

Bush is still stuck in the first turn, while Kerry has long ago come through it. That just should not be. Bush doesn't need to appease the right to win the nomination, as his father did. He can certainly take their votes, though not necessarily turnout, for granted in the general election. This seems to be a tactic not borne of necessity, but of choice, like the Iraq war. And it is a strange and inexplicable tactic, one that, like the war, we take seriously only because they do, and which almost certainly cannot succeed. As Ruy demonstrates, to make up for a failure to reach independents and swing voters this year, the Republicans would have to find an unbelievable number of non-voting conservative whites. It is a tactic that worked once: in Georgia in 2002, where the descriptions I've heard of the GOP's "72-hour plan" really begin to sound like a "Deliverance" version of an old urban machine, rousting the forgotten born-agains in their tiny hamlets and packing them in cars to the polls. It will probably work in Georgia again. But I don't see Georgia on any list of swing states.

In a presidential election, where turnout is automatically 10-20 percentage points higher than in an off-year like 2002, there is much less upside potential for this tactic, that is, fewer Bush-base white non-voters available. And if it requires divisive social conservatism to motivate that limited base, that tactic will almost almost certainly infuriate and motivate the larger Democratic base, particularly younger voters who are the most underrepresented group in the electorate. The religious vote is close to reaching its maximum potential; the 18-25 year old vote, the Latino vote, the unmarried women vote, etc. are all just beginning. The 2004 election will be decided on turnout, but for the Republicans, it cannot be won on turnout alone.

A colleague said to me last week while watching the Senate defeat the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, "Karl Rove is a genius. He knows what he's doing." I think that perception is the best asset Bush has. But I'm not seeing it. If the current tactic of pandering to the right is born of necessity, then something is very wrong in the Bush coalition that we don't really know about. If it's a choice, it's a crazy one.

(As for the title of this post: I retained it from an earlier draft, when I was going to totally overtax my race-car driving metaphor. I was going to say something like, running for President is Formula 1 racing, not NASCAR, where you only turn in one direction, and the Bush campaign is running like its NASCAR, in reverse, always turning right. If I could get that metaphor to work, it could go places -- for example, Kerry=French=Formula 1, etc. -- but it was not to be. I couldn't think of a better title, though.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Lawyers or Unions?

I've been thinking about John Edwards as a trial lawyer, and the fact that Republicans seem totally blind to the fact that not everyone hates plaintiffs' lawyers as routinely as they do. It is a real blindspot of the conservative elite, who don't know anyone who thinks differently.

It also reminded me of a conversation I had over the winter with an old friend who is a conservative corporate lawyer in South Carolina. (And also one of the most interesting, well-read, thoughtful and likable people I know.) He recounted a conversation with a client whose company was opening a plant in South Carolina. "I love doing business in South Carolina," the client said. "You got no unions." My friend said, "That's true, but we have plaintiffs' lawyers."

This is more than a point about South Carolina, though. Here are some relevant state rankings:

States with lowest union density (union members as % of all employed)

North Carolina
South Carolina
South Dakota
New Mexico

The five "worst states" for litigation, in a survey of businesses commissioned by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2003:


West Virginia

States with counties dubbed "Judicial Hellholes" in a survey for the American Tort Reform Association

Texas (3 counties)
Mississippi (2 counties)

West Virginia
South Carolina
West Virginia
New Mexico

(States on both the low-unionization list and the tort reformers hit lists are in boldface.)

These lists are sort of apples and oranges -- union density is a fairly objective fact about a state, while the phrase "judicial hellhole" doesn't really have fixed meaning and I don't intend to endorse it. But the business surveys presumably do capture which states and counties are perceived to have generous juries and plaintiff-friendly judges and laws. The correlation isn't perfect, but it is close enough to say that it seems to be the rule that where there are no unions, there are plaintiffs' lawyers, and vice versa. (Except in Western states such as Utah, Idaho and Arizona that have both low unionization and also are not perceived to have strong plaintiffs' lawyers.) I'm sure there is some explanation for this, perhaps in the state constitutions, or in the history of Southern white politics and its love-hate relationship with corporate power. (I came across this article on the topic of tort law and state constitutions, which looks interesting but I'm probably not going to find time to read it unless it's going to be on the exam.)

If you were designing a society and had to choose between two means of checking corporate power -- strong unions and a generous but arbitrary and patchwork tort process -- you would undoubtedly choose unions. The tort system, especially in the "hellhole" states, delivers very generous rewards to a very few victims, which have no value except deterrence in making the broader societal outcomes fairer. And the victims who do win large awards are sometimes not the most seriously affected victims of even the specific negligence, and they rarely go to those most damaged in the broader sense. To take a caricatured example, if a doctor makes an error that causes some permanent damage, it will usually lead to a settlement or large award, but if you are uninsured and the harm is caused by the fact that you didn't see a doctor or get the right treatment, you're out of luck, just because there's no one to sue.

These problems make the idea of tort reform or civil justice reform appealing. But I also recognize that to limit access to the courts has a disparate impact in the South particularly, in states where people have few other ways to get justice. I know there are ways to reform the tort system that would actually benefit those truly hurt by corporate negligence, but the advocates of tort reform never seem particularly interested in that goal.

I know I'll get a comment or two on this, so bring it on. Also, if anyone knows of harder numbers to rank the states on plaintiff-friendliness, for lack of a better phrase, please let me know. I thought I'd seen some better state-by-state numbers, but those two business opinion surveys were all I could find by searching.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack


I cannot believe that anyone is taking seriously the idea that Mike Ditka would be a good Senate candidate from Illinois. Yes, he's beloved in the state. But people are not morons. They know the difference between footbal-coach skils and Senator skills. They won't love Mike Ditka any less if they understand that he's perhaps not the best fit for the U.S. Senate, especially against Barak Obama.

People like Ditka, who have been the kings of their little fiefdoms for their entire adult lives, are almost always disastrous candidates. It's always something, some quirk in their past, an unwillingness to not blurt out prejudices, resistance to advice, short temper, that dooms these campaigns, whether it is sports figures or businessmen. Illinois has already gone through two such characters, in Jack Ryan and the one-time Democratic primary front-runner Blair Hull.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 16, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

A Turkey of a column

(sorry, couldn't resist the pun)

I'm a bit of a Turkophile, and I certainly think it would be a good thing for Turkey to be able to join the European Union. In addition to creating a bridge between Western Europe and the Muslim world, and helping Turkey's economy, the very process of making itself eligible for EU membership has been beneficial to Turkey's democracy and economy, although that process is far from complete.

George Will today uses the issue of Turkey's membership in the EU to, by some bizarre sleight-of-hand, lambaste Kerry as a Mondale-style liberal. Will writes:

Looking ahead, as voters do, what is the big difference between Kerry and Bush?

It is Kerry's vague promise to do something that he says Bush cannot do -- mend America's breach with "the world" and especially with Europe. ...

On his recent European trip Bush again aggravated many Europeans by urging the European Union to act favorably on Turkey's desire to join.

Few American voters have thought about this subject, but America has an interest in further integrating into the West -- Turkey has long been an important NATO member -- a mostly Muslim nation that is, so far, secular and democratic....

But if, as president, Kerry would abandon support for Turkey to avoid friction with Europe, he should say why. And if he would risk that friction on Turkey's behalf, he must acknowledge, to Bush's benefit, that international harmony is not the highest aim of foreign policy.

As far as I can tell, Will has simply invented a position for Kerry here. Let's try to follow the logic: since Kerry has promised not to needlessly aggravate our allies, and the most recent instance of Bush aggravating our allies was over Turkey, therefore for Kerry to keep his promise requires abandoning support for Turkey. If he breaks his promise he has to admit that Bush's foreign policy approach was the right one.

I can't find any indication that Kerry has stated a position on Turkish admission to the EU. Nor should he be expected to. In addition to the fact that a candidate for president does not have to take positions on decisions that are entirely outside of the president's purview -- such as decisions by other countries -- all candidates deal cautiously with issues related to Turkey during a campaign. It's a classic case study in the role of foreign policy in politics: There are relatively few Turkish Americans, and thus little constituency for a pro-Turkish position, yet there are a great many Armenian- and Greek-Americans, also politically active, who are very hostile to any support for Turkey. On the other hand every President merely looks at the globe in the Oval Office to understand that Turkey is one of the indispensable allies. The phrase "Armenian genocide" never again leaves their lips.

But lets assume that both Bush and Kerry perceive it to be in the national interest of the U.S., as well as a good thing for the world, for Turkey to join the economically and politically liberal European Union. Which one is more likely to achieve that goal?

Is it Bush, whose administration first pissed-off the Turks in the run-up to the Iraq war by treating a quiet deal between generals as a proxy for approval by the civilian government and legislature -- which might have been true of Turkey even ten years ago, but not in the new, EU-aspiring and slightly less militarized country -- and then, to mend fences with the Turks, agreed to help them get into the EU, but did so with a public splash that generated a backlash?

Or is it Kerry? Here's what I think Kerry would have done, not based on special insight about Kerry, but because this is what every reasonable U.S. administration, from Nixon to Clinton, would have done:

First, not alienate Turkey in the first place.

Second, do all possible to enable Turkey to achieve the conditions required for EU membership. This requires sustained economic aid and a huge investment in the civilian infrastructure of the state, and probably other forms of assistance I can't imagine, but all of it non-military.

Third, treat the relative calm in the Kurdish world as a great blessing, one that encourages Turkey to continue demilitarizing in the east. Do nothing that would reignite Kurdish claims and thus Kurdish movements that Turkey believes are threatening. Above all, don't start a civil war in Iraq.

Fourth, maintain our influence with Europe. It's pretty hard to talk someone into doing something if they don't like you.

Fifth, recognize that sometimes even "tough-minded" diplomacy needs to be quiet. If the U.S. had credibility with Europe, then sending the message through channels that the U.S. places a high priority on Turkish admission to the E.U. would probably have weighed heavily in the debate. Doing it publicly and at a time of overwhelming anti-American sentiment forces European leaders to take Chirac's position, which was that the U.S. had no more business advising the EU on what to do than France would have in telling us what our policy toward Mexico should be. Further, the public stance risks igniting anti-immigrant politics in Germany and several other countries, combining it with anti-Americanism in a dangerous brew.

If you do all this, it is far likelier that the next decade will see an EU accession celebration in Ankara. If you think this is no big deal, ask a Hungarian.

Since Will drew some grandiose conclusion about Kerry from his hypothetical about Turkey, I'm unafraid to do the same. I think the contrast in the election is not between tough talk and cooperation, or big stick and wimp. Rather, it's over whether you face these challenges with the full arsenal available, or limit yourself needlessly to a few weapons. It seems that in the Bush White House, when the national security advisor comes in with some new problem, the responses are: "We could threaten them." We could invade." "We could threaten to invade." And, "We could talk tough' Usually the fourth prevails. In the Kerry administration -- or any other conceivable presidential administration -- the response would be, "What are the factors that we can influence that will make this turn out the way we want it to?" North Korea is the prime example of failing to ask this question, but there are plenty of others, such as Turkey. It is astonishing that people like Will manage to convert this blundering narrowness of vision into some sort of ideological virtue.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 12, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

When Deficits really didn't matter

In a post earlier today, I made reference to President Kennedy's 1962 Yale Commencement speech, which I said was one of the best modern presidential speeches. I'm not sure it's the best speech, as rhetoric, but it is certainly the most powerful statement of its era and that era's attitude toward professionals and experts and their role in serving public problems. Today, most of us have a more skeptical, chastened view of that experts and the idea of disinterestedness, and the White House rejects it entirely. The speech is hard to find, so I decided to post it here (click here, or on Continue reading... at the end of this. It's fascinating to read now and think about how far we are from Kennedy's post-partisan ideal, and depressing to think that the Bush administration mocks every aspect of this approach to government.

Consider the following two paragraphs:

Last week, a distinguished graduate of this school, Senator Proxmire, of the class of 1938, who is ordinarily regarded as a liberal Democrat, suggested that we should follow in meeting our economic problems a stiff fiscal policy, with emphasis on budget balance and an easy monetary policy with low interest rates in order to keep our economy going. In the same week, the Bank for International Settlement in Basil, Switzerland, a conservative organization representing the central bankers of Europe suggested that the appropriate economic policy in the United States should be the very opposite; that we should follow a flexible budget policy, as in Europe, with deficits when the economy is down and a high monetary policy on interest rates, as in Europe, in order to control inflation and protect goals. Both may be right or wrong. It will depend on many different factors.

The truth is that this is basically an administrative or executive problem in which political labels or cliches do not give us a solution.

Imagine a president who can say that, on the key questions of monetary and fiscal policy, including whether we should balance the budget, he doesn't even have an opinion, except to the extent that as the chief executive he draws together expert opinion on the many different factors involved. In our time, when deficits, surplus, and the level of revenue have become matters of ideology and even political labels in themselves -- "starve-the-beast" vs. "Rubinomics" -- this is just unimaginable, astonishing, and even refreshing. There was so much wrong with this view of the world, and its failure to see the deep emotional forces always moving beneath the surface of American politics. But as a remedy for the opposite extreme represented by the Bush administration, we need a small dose of this brand of Kennedy-ism.

President John F. Kennedy
Commencement Address at Yale University

June 11, 1962

President Griswald, members of the faculty, graduates and their families, ladies and gentlemen:

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the very deep honor which you have conferred upon me. As General Degaulle occasionally acknowledges America to be the daughter of Europe, so am I pleased to come to Yale, the daughter of Harvard. It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree.

I am particularly glad to become a Yale man because as I think about my troubles, I find that a lot of them come from other Yale men. Among businessmen I have had a minor disagreement with Roger Blough of the law school class of 1931, and I have had some complaints from my friend Henry Ford of the class of 1940. In journalism I seem to have a difference with John Hay Whitney, of the class of 1926--and sometimes I also displease Henry Luce of the class of 1920, not to mention also William F. Buckley Jr. of the class of 1950. I even have some trouble with my Yale advisors. I get along with them, but I am not always sure how they get along with each other.

I have the warmest feelings for Chester Bowles of the class of 1924, and for Dean Acheson of the class of 1915, and my assistant, McGeorge Bundy, of the class of 1940. But I am not 100% sure that these three wise and experienced Yale men wholly agree with each other on every issue.

So this administration which aims for peaceful cooperation among all Americans has been the victim of a certain natural pugnacity developed in this city among Yale men. Now that I too am a Yale man, it is time for peace. Last week at West Point, in the historic tradition of that Academy, I availed myself of the powers of the Commander-in-Chief to remit all sentences of offending cadets. In that same spirit, and in the historic tradition of Yale, let me now offer to smoke the clay pipe of friendship with all my brother Elis, and I hope that they may be friends not only with me but even with each other.

In any event, I am very glad to be here and as a new member of the club, I have been checking to see what earlier links existed between the institution of the Presidency and Yale. I found that a member of the class of 1878, William Howard Taft, served one term in the White House as preparation for becoming a member of this faculty. And a graduate of 1804, John C. Calhoun, regarded the Vice Presidency, quite naturally, as too lowly a status for a Yale alumnus--and became the only man in history ever to resign that office.

Calhoun in 1804 and Taft in 1878 graduated into a world very different from ours today. They and their contemporaries spent entire careers stretching over 40 years in grappling with a few dramatic issues on which the Nation was sharply and emotionally divided, issues that occupied the attention of a generation at a time: the national bank, the disposal of the public lands, nullification or union, freedom or slavery, gold or silver. Today these old sweeping issues very largely have disappeared. The central domestic issues of our time are more subtle and less simple. The relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals--to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues. The world of Calhoun, the world of Taft had its own problems and notable challenges. But its problems are not our problems. Their age is not our age. As every past generation has had to disenthrall itself from an inheritance of truisms and stereotypes, so in our time we must move on from the reassuring repetition of stale phrases to a new, difficult, but essential confrontation with reality.

For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest-- but the myth--persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

Mythology distracts us everywhere--in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic affairs. But today I want to particularly consider the myth and reality in our national economy. In recent months many have come to feel, as I do, that the dialog between the parties--between business and government, between the government and the public--is clogged by illusion and platitude and fails to reflect the true realities of contemporary American society.

I speak of these matters here at Yale because of the self-evident truth that a great University is always enlisted against the spread of illusion and on the side of reality. No one has said it more clearly than your President Griswald: "Liberal learning is both a safeguard against false ideas of freedom and a source of true ones." Your role as University men, whatever your calling, will be to increase each new generation's grasp of its duties.

There are three great areas of our domestic affairs in which, today, there is a danger that illusion may prevent effective action. They are, first, the question of the size and shape of the government's responsibilities; second, the question of public fiscal policy, and third, the matter of confidence, business confidence or public confidence, or simply confidence in America. I want to talk about all three, and I want to talk about them carefully and dispassionately-- and I emphasize that I am concerned here not with political debate but with finding ways to separate false problems from real ones.

If a contest in angry argument were forced upon it, no administration could shrink from response, and history does not suggest that American Presidents are totally without resources in an engagement forced upon them because of hostility in one sector of society. But in the wider national interest, we need not partisan wrangling but common concentration on common problems. I come here to this distinguished University to ask you to join in this great task.

Let us take first the question of the size and shape of government. The myth here is that government is big and bad--and steadily getting bigger and worse. Obviously this myth has some excuse for existence. It is true that in recent history, each new administration has spent much more money than its predecessor. Thus President Roosevelt outspent President Hoover, and with allowances for the special case of the Second World War, President Truman outspent President Roosevelt. Just to prove that this was not a partisan matter, President Eisenhower then outspent President Truman by the handsome figure of $182 billion. It is even possible, some think, that this trend will continue.

But does it follow from this that big government is growing relatively bigger? It does not-- for the fact is, for the last 15 years, the Federal Government--and also the Federal debt--and also the Federal bureaucracy have grown less rapidly than the economy as a whole. If we leave defence and space expenditures aside, the Federal Government since the Second World War has expanded less than any other major sector of our national life--less than industry, less than commerce, less than agriculture, less than higher education, and very much less than the noise about big government.

The truth about big government is the truth about any other great activity--it is complex. Certainly it is true that the size brings dangers--but it is also true that size can bring benefits. Here at Yale which has contributed so much to our national progress in science and medicine, it may be proper for me to note one great and little noticed expansion of government which has brought strength to our whole society--the new role of the Federal Government as the major patron of research in science and in medicine. Few people realize that in 1961, in support of all university research in science and in medicine, three dollars out of every four came from the Federal Government. I need hardly point out that this has taken place without undue enlarge- ment of Government control--that American scientists remain second to none in their independance and their individualism.

I am not suggesting that Federal expenditures cannot bring some measure of control. The whole thrust of Federal expenditures in agriculture have been related by purpose and design to control, as a means of dealing with the problems created by our farmers and our growing productivity. Each sector, my point is, of activity must be approached on its own merits and on terms of specific national needs. Generalities in regard to Federal expenditures, therefore, can be misleading-- each case--science, urban renewal, education, agriculture, natural resources, each case must be determined on its merits if we are to profit from our unrivaled ability to combine the strength of public and private purpose.

Next, let us turn to the problem of our fiscal policy. Here the myths are legion and the truth hard to find. But let me take as a prime example the problem of the Federal Budget. We persist in measuring our Federal fiscal integrity by the conventional or administrative budgets-- with results that would be considered absurd in any business firm--in any country of Europe--or in any careful assessment of the reality of our national finances. The administrative budget has sound administrative uses. But for wider purposes it is helpful. It omits our special trust funds and the effect they have on our economy; it neglects changes in assets and inventories. It cannot tell a loan from a straight expenditure--and worst of all it cannot distinguish between operating expenditures and long-term investments.

This budget, in relation to the great problems of Federal fiscal policy which are basic to our economy in 1962, is not simply irrelevant; it can be actively misleading. And yet there is a mythology that measures all of our national soundness or unsoundness on the single simple basis of this same annual administrative budget. If our Federal budget is to serve not the debate but the country, we must and will find ways of clarifying this area of discourse.

Still in the area of fiscal policy, let me say a word about deficits. The myth persists that Federal deficits created inflation and budget surpluses prevent it. Yet sizeable budget surpluses after the war did not prevent inflation, and persistent deficits for the last several years have not upset our basic price stability. Obviously deficits are sometimes dangerous--and so are surpluses. But honest assessment plainly requires a more sophisticated view than the old and automatic cliche that deficits automatically bring inflation.

There are myths also about our public debt. It is widely supposed that this debt is growing at a dangerously rapid rate. In fact, both the debt per person and the debt as a proportion of our national product have sharply declined since the Second World War. In absolute terms, the national debt since the end of World War II has increased only 8%, while private debt was increasing 305%, and the debts of state and local governments--on whom people frequently suggest we should place additional burdens--the debts of state and local governments have increased 378%. Moreover, debts public and private, are neither good nor bad, in and of themselves. Borrowing can lead to over-extension and collapse--but it can also lead to expansion and strength. There is no simple, single slogan in this field that we can trust.

Finally, I come to the matter of confidence. Confidence is a matter of myth and also a matter of truth--and this time let me make the truth of the matter first.

It is true--and of high importance--that the prosperity of this country depends on the assurance that all major elements within it will live up to their responsibilities. If business were to neglect its obligations to the public, if labor were blind to all public responsiblity, above all, if government were to abandon its obvious--and statutory--duty of watchful concern for our economic health--if any of these things should happen, then confidence might well be weakened and the danger of stagnation would increase. This is the true issue of confidence.

But there is also the false issue--and its simplest form is the assertion that any and all of the unfavorable turns of the speculative wheel--however temporary and however plainly speculative in character--are the result of, and I quote, "a lack of confidence in the national administration." This I must tell you, while comforting, is not wholly true. Worse, it obscures the reality, which is also simple. The solid ground of mutual confidence is the necessary partnership of government with all of the sectors of our society in the steady quest for economic progress.

Corporate plans are not based on political confidence in party leaders but on an economic confidence in the nations ability to invest and produce and consume. Business had full confidence in the administrations in power in 1929, 1954, 1958, and 1960--but this was not enough to prevent recession when business lacked full confidence in the economy. What matters is the capacity of the Nation as a whole to deal with its economic problems and its opportunities.

The stereotypes I have been discussing distract our attention and divide our effort. These stereotypes do our nation a disservice, not just because they exhausted and irrelevant, but above all because they are misleading--because they stand in the way of the solution of hard and complicated facts. It is not new that past debates should obscure present realities. But the damage of such a false dialog is greater today than ever before simply because today the safety of all the world--the very future of freedom--depends as never before on the sensible and clearheaded management of the domestic affairs of the United States.

The real issues of our time are rarely as dramatic as the issues of Calhoun. The differences of today are usually matters of degree. And we cannot understand and attack our contemporary problems in 1962 if we are bound by traditional labels and worn out slogans of an earlier era. But the unfortunate fact of the matter is that our rhetoric has not kept pace with the speed of social and economic change. Our political debates, our public discourse--on current domestic and economic issues--too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces.

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

The national interest lies in high employment and steady expansion of output, in stable prices and a strong dollar. The declaration of such an objective is easy; their attainment in an intricate and interdependant economy and world is a little more difficult. To attain them we require not some automatic response, but hard thought. Let me end by suggesting a few of the real questions on our national agenda.

First, how can a budget and tax policies supply adequate revenues and preserve our balance of payments position without slowing up our economic growth?

Two, how are we to set interest rates and regulate the flow of money, in ways which will stimulate the economy at home, without weakening the dollar abroad? Given the spectrum of our domestic and international responsibilities, what should be the mix between fiscal and monetary policy?

Let me give several examples from my experience of the complexity of these matters, and how political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution.

Last week, a distinguished graduate of this school, Senator Proxmire, of the class of 1938, who is ordinarily regarded as a liberal Democrat, suggested that we should follow in meeting our economic problems a stiff fiscal policy, with emphasis on budget balance and an easy monetary policy with low interest rates in order to keep our economy going. In the same week, the Bank for International Settlement in Basil, Switzerland, a conservative organization representing the central bankers of Europe suggested that the appropriate economic policy in the United States should be the very opposite; that we should follow a flexible budget policy, as in Europe, with deficits when the economy is down and a high monetary policy on interest rates, as in Europe, in order to control inflation and protect goals. Both may be right or wrong. It will depend on many different factors.

The is that this is basically an administrative or executive problem in which political labels or cliches do not give us a solution.

A well-known business journal this morning, as I journeyed to New Haven, raised the prospect that a further budget deficit would bring inflation and encourage the flow of gold. We have had several budget deficits beginning with a $12 and 1/2 billion budget deficit in 1958, and it is true that in the fall of 1960 we had a gold dollar loss running at $5 billion annually. This would seem to prove the case that a deficit produces inflation and that we lose gold, yet there was no inflation following the deficit of 1958 nor has there been inflation since then.

Our wholesale price index since 1958 has remained completely level in spite of several deficits, because the loss of gold has been due to other reasons: price instability, relative interests rates, relative export-import balances, national security expenditures, all the rest.

Let me give you a third and final example. At the World Bank meeting in September, a number of American bankers attending predicted to their European colleagues that because of the fiscal 1962 budget deficit, there would be a strong inflationary pressure on the dollar and a loss of gold. Their predictions on inflation were shared by many in business and helped push the market up. The recent reality of non-inflation helped bring it down. We have had no inflation because we have had other factors in our economy that have contributed to price stability.

I do not suggest that the government is right and they are wrong. The fact of the matter is in the Federal Reserve Board and in the administration this fall, a similar view was held by many well-informed and disinterested men that inflation was the major problem that we would face in the winter of 1962. But it was not. What I do suggest is that these problems are endlessly complicated and yet they go to the future of this country and its ability to prove to the world what we believe it must prove.

I am suggesting that the problems of fiscal and monetary policies in the 1960's as opposed to the kinds of problems we faced in the thirties demand subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers must be provided. These are matters upon which government and business may and in many cases will disagree. They are certainly matters which government and business should be discussing in the most sober, dispassionate and careful way if we are to maintain the kind of vigorous economy upon which our country depends.

How can we develop and sustain strong and stable world markets for basic commodities without unfairness to the consumer and without undue stimulus to the producer? How can we generate the buying power which can consume what we produce on our farms and in our factories? How can we take advantage of the miracles of automation with the great demand that it will put upon highly skilled labor and yet offer employment to the half million of unschooled dropouts each year who enter the labor market, eight million of them in the 1960's?

How do we eradicate the barriers which separate substantial minorities of our citizens from access to education and employment on equal terms with the rest?

How, in sum, can we make our free economy work at full capacity--that is, provide adequate profits for enterprise, adequate wages for labor, adequate utilization of plant and opportunity for all?

These are the problems that we should be talking about--that the political parties and the various groups in our country should be discussing. The cannot be solved by incantations from the forgotten past. But the example of Western Europe shows that they are capable of solution--that governments, and many of them are conservative governments, prepared to face technical problems without ideological preconceptions, can coordinate the elements of a national economy, and bring about growth and prosperity--a decade of it.

Some conversations I have heard in our own country sound like old records, long-playing, left over from the middle thirties. The debate of the thirties had its great significance and produced great results, but it took place in a different world with different needs and different tasks. It is our responsibility today to live in our own world, and to identify the needs and discharge the tasks of the 1960's.

If there is any current trend toward meeting present problems with old cliches, this is the moment to stop it--before it lands us all in a bog of sterile acrimony.

Discussion is essential; and I am hopeful that the debate of recent weeks, though up to now somewhat barren, may represent the start of a serious dialog of the kind which has led in Europe to such fruitful collaboration among all the elements of economic society and to a decade of unrivalled economic progress. But let us not engage in the wrong argument at the wrong time and between the wrong people in the wrong country--while the real problems of our own time grow and multiply, fertilized by our neglect.

Nearly 150 years ago, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The new circumstances under which we are placed call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects." New words, new phrases, the transfer of old words to new objects--that is truer today than it was in the time of Jefferson, because the role of this country is so vastly more significant. There is a show in England called "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." You have chosen not to excercise that option. You are part of the world and you must participate in these days of our years in the solution of the problems that pour upon us, requiring the most sophisticated and technical judgement; and as we work in consonance to meet the authentic problems of our times, we will generate a vision and an energy which will demonstrate anew to the world the superior vitality and strenght of the free society.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Mickey Kaus on Kerry and Campaign $

Combining two of his less explicable obsessions -- Kerry-hating and finding loopholes in campaign finance law -- Mickey Kaus has been dwelling on the question of whether Kerry can "pre-buy" media for the period between the Democratic convention and the general election in November, thus using his windfall from small contributions to avoid the limits imposed in the post-nomination period, when he can spend only the $75 million in public funds that he and Bush will both receive.

The answer, of course is that the Federal Election Commission does draw a bright line between spending in the pre-convention period -- when candidates like Bush and Kerry who have opted out of public financing for the primaries can raise and spend whatever they want in contributions of $2,000 or less -- and spending leading up to the election, which is limited and publicly financed. To pay now for an ad to run in October, treating it as a July expense, would be blatantly illegal. Yes, Kaus says, the FCC is not a great enforcement agency and the penalty may be no more than to have to repay the funds. But it's not a gray area, and no campaign would want to be caught with a contract for election-week ads signed, paid for and reported in July. The campaign finance scandal following Clinton's reelection in 1996, which included a special congressional investigation and several indictments, was based on violations no less technical.

However, there are two points to make: First, there are other ways to manipulate funds in order to boost the money available in the pre-election period. Second, this is not a story about the Kerry campaign. Whatever those techniques are, the Bush campaign, which has known for years that it would opt out of pre-convention public financing and also that it would have roughly $200 million, has long ago figured them out. For Kerry, who only a few months ago decided for sure that he would opt out in the primaries, and only a few weeks ago realized that rather than facing a "dark period" before the convention, he actually would find himself raising more many than any candidate in history from individual contributions, it is much too late to figure out and implement many of the tricks that allow that money to go further.

The slickest trick, of course, was delaying the Republican convention so that they have only nine weeks in which to spend their $75 million, while the Democrats have to stretch it over another month. That's why Kerry may or may not have toyed with the idea of delaying his formal acceptance of the nomination until later.

The time factor alone is not enough to worry the Democrats. I think Kerry's campaign would not be so worried about money in the end-game if they did not suspect that Bush had already figured out all the tricks. And the main trick is not to pre-purchase ads, but to essentially pre-purchase everything else a campaign needs, so that every penny of the $75 million can go to television ads.

A friend who is a political scientist suggested a hypothetical example, and one that would be far less blatant than the contract with the broadcaster: How are the field staff of the Bush campaign being paid? Are they being paid more now and less after the convention? Or even, do they have contracts that run only through the nomination, at fairly high pay, after which they will reappear as volunteers? (I have no idea if the Bush campaign is doing anything like this, just that it's an example of how this might be done. Much like the date of the convention, it is too late for Kerry to do something like this even if he wanted to.

Finally, I should point out that all this confusion and these loopholes come about because the Congress of 1976, responding to the Buckley v. Valeo decision, made a fundamental mistake in the design of a public financing scheme: It allowed candidates to opt out of one portion of a public financing system and not the other. That is why we have to draw these elaborate lines between the privately-financed Bush campaign, which ends September 1, and the publicly-financed campaign. It seems to be a consensus among everyone who has proposed reform to the presidential public financing system that it must be a strict in-or-out choice. If you opt out of the spending limits of the primary period, you cannot turn around and take public money in the general election. To make that requirement work, and persuade most candidates to stay in the fairer public system, will require other changes to make the system more generous. My own preferred option is the system used in New York City, so that in the public system, contributions of $250 or less would be matched at 4:1, rather than dollar-for-dollar. No one opts out of that system! It's worth noting that Kerry, as the cosponsor of the Kerry-Wellstone bill to establish public financing of congressional elections, has shown an understanding of and commitment to this issue, and is more likey than Bush to want to fix the system.

[Update: Matthew Yglesias points out, of course, that Mayor Bloomberg opted out of the NYC public financing system. Indeed. So did Elana Waksal Posner, daughter of Sam Waksal of Martha Stewart fame, who ran for a city council seat. 99.something percent of all eligible candidates did participate. And those two opted out in favor of using their own considerable wealth, rather than raising money from others, as Bush and Kerry are doing. The 4:1 match provides a strong incentive against opting out in favor of traditional fund-raising, and the spending limit is also relatively hight.]

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Another administration official found incompetent

The Wall Street Journal has started sending me a "free link" every evening, which is I suppose the next best thing to making the site free. Today's article reveals the fact that Michael Powell, as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has now been written off as a total failure in his ability to implement any of his deregulatory agenda. The story quotes a prominent investment advisor who "says he has shifted most of his company's telecom investments outside the U.S. 'The inability of the FCC to execute on major decisions has driven investors away' and makes it impossible for companies to make 'capital and customer decisions' with any competitive certainty."

This is really an astonishing development. Within a few months of his appointment as chair of the Commission, Powell -- Colin Powell's son -- had a solid working majority for anything he wanted to do. Yet, just to take one example, his proposal to lift the limits on the number of TV stations rolled through the commission but was emphatically rejected by both houses of Congress (although Tom DeLay prevented the provision from actually passing both houses in the same form), and also blocked by a court.

This raised two thoughts with me: First, can anyone think of a single mildly prominent official of the Bush administration who will emerge from this with an improved reputation, whether for competence or character? Powell, his father, everyone in the Defense, State and Justice Departments, the White House staff, Treasury, OMB, HHS, the independent agencies like the FCC -- almost every known figure I can think of in any of those offices seems to me to carry the stench of some great failure and/or act of corruption. I suppose the returned Karen Hughes might resume her record of being present at every success and absent from every disaster, but that remains to be seen. The only administration official who seems to have left with a reputation for being good at his job is former press secretary Ari Fleischer, but then, the definition of being good at his job involves successfully repeating the very same nonresponsive words again and again, no matter how many times and ways a question is asked.

Second, the article provided a lot of insight into the culture of the FCC, which is essentially a big ripe target dropped into the middle of a cluster of the best-paid lawyer-lobbyists whose job is to influence it. But the article may not have been clear enough. When the Journal reports that "Critics say Mr. Powell focused too much on a sweeping free-market agenda while not maintaining strong political alliances and neglecting the short-term consequences for influential interest groups," a reader might find that confusing. After all, the "interest groups" mentioned here are business groups, and business likes deregulation, so why wouldn't "a sweeping free-market agenda" build alliances?

What Powell didn't seem to understand, and liberal opponents of the Powell agenda also often overlook is that there is no constituency for a completely deregulatory agenda. Business never categorically favors deregulation. Every act of deregulating some market or technology, just like every act of regulating it, creates some predictable economic winners and some economic losers. They all like to preach deregulation or free markets, but their real priority is either to protect some advantage they have already gained or to ensure that the deregulatory process guarantees them some new advantage. This is the story of Enron. Powell didn't seem to understand that, while the National Association of Broadcasters had to officially support his move to allow ownership consolidation, the vast number of small broadcasters understood that they would be the losers, as the network-owned stations might enter their markets. Even within business, the constituency hurt by deregulation was larger and better able to influence members of Congress (because they are local businesses, which also happen to control your own in-district press coverage) than the handful of companies that could benefit from being allowed to own stations in 45 percent of all markets. Advocates for the consideration of the public interest in this and other decisions are much stronger than a few years ago, but Powell's failure is not just the victory of those concerned with the public interest. It is his own failure to understand private interests, blinded by ideology.

The FCC is an unusual agency. The chair is selected at the pleasure of the president, from among the members. The members' terms, as I understand it, expire sometime in the summer but they are allowed to stay until the end of the current congressional term. Apparently most of the conservative members have terms that end now, and they will be out after the election, unless Congress replaces them, which requires confirmation hearings which would allow the Democrats to take over the agenda, and so they will not be replaced. Kerry, if elected, would have the opportunity Clinton did not have to appoint a full majority of the FCC very quickly. The Powell era, which everyone involved with media policy from a public perspective was terrified of, could end very quickly, with little to show for itself.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

On Barbara Ehrenreich and Elites

There are a lot of good things to be said about Barbara Ehrenreich: She's one of the few widely read commentators concerned with what I'm mostly worried about, which is the conditions of life and future prospects for the poorer 40% of the population. She's a vivid prose stylist, and her political passion invigorates her writing rather than bogging it down. She's good at narrative and connecting ordinary stories to policy questions or political circumstances. But I've never found I got much insight or original thought from Ehrenreich. So while I noticed her byline on the Times op-ed page, I did not realize she was a columnist -- albeit a fill-in for Nicholas Kristof -- until Timothy Noah crowned her "the best Times columnist" in Slate, on the basis of two columns.

Normally I would assume that Slate's snarky style and Ehrenreich's earnestness would not mix, so this was a provocative endorsement. Enough to make me go back and read the first two columns and notice the third. The first is particularly deserving of comment.

In "Dude, Where's That Elite?," Ehrenreich defends Michael Moore against the charge that he represents a "liberal elite," and, going further, argues "to retire the 'liberal elite' label" altogether. Her case is basically twofold: The left can't be considered an elite because except for "Barbra Streisand, Arianna Huffington and George Soros," they are not rich. And second, that the very idea of a liberal elite is a whacky con-game from the same ex-leftists who brought you the war in Iraq. Here's the key paragraph:

Like the notion of social class itself, the idea of a liberal elite originated on the left, among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites who noted, correctly, that the Soviet Union was spawning a "new class" of power-mad bureaucrats. The Trotskyites brought this theory along with them when they mutated into neocons in the 60's, and it was perhaps their most precious contribution to the emerging American right. Backed up by the concept of a "liberal elite," right-wingers could crony around with their corporate patrons in luxuriously appointed think tanks and boardrooms ? all the while purporting to represent the average overworked Joe.

That's an useful thought, if true. It allows one to dismiss the entire notion that highly educated, metro-area, nonreligious professionals might constitute a somewhat privileged group, out of touch with the realities of life and values of much of America, as merely a Trotskyite scam, borrowed and adapted by the corporate right as a trick to justify their power.

But in the process, Ehrenreich surrenders much of what she herself either believes or knows to be true. Start with "The notion of social class itself...originated among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites." Really? I would expect that Ehrenreich finds the idea of social class useful -- why would she want to relegate it to the margins of discarded Bolshevisms? Were Marx, Durkheim and Weber "early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites"? And as for the idea of a liberal elite, yes, it has some historical affinity to the idea of a "new class" of professionals and managers predicted by Bakunin, then Trotsky, and most clearly developed by the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas. Their concept was, as Ehrenreich admits, a completely correct empirical prediction: The communist society does not bring either the dissolution of all social classes or "the withering away of the state," but rather, the managers and professionals of the state constitute a new class of political and economic power-holders who will not give way easily.

As it applies to the United States, of course, it was a much different concept with very different roots. Here, it was developed by thinkers like Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who can be called "neoconservatives," but only in that they were both implicated in Peter Steinfels' 1979 book of that name. They were really just liberal anti-communists with a skeptical streak, when compared to the Perles and Wolfowitzes who wear the tag today. And neither had been serious Trotskyites as adults, although they did move in some of the same circles. And really, their idea was just another way of stating the consequences of the "liberal consenus" as JFK described it in his 1962 Yale commencement address (one of the greatest of modern presidential speeches, although so very wrong in many ways): "What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead." Bell and others understood that, to the extent that this was true, those capable of "practical management" and "sophisticated and technical questions" would become a group with influence to rival the purely economic elite. And I think that has turned out to be true.

The right certainly adopted this idea as a way of diverting attention from its own dedication to the well-being of the economic elite. But it did not need the Trotskyites or neo-cons to show them how to do so. Recall William F. Buckley insisting, probably dishonestly, that he would rather "live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the first two thousand faculty members of Harvard University." Soon after he wrote that, however, Buckley was running a reactionary petition campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation (its board), in defense of the institution's elitism and in opposition to the "democratic leveling guns" of the university's changing admissions policies, which Buckley said discriminated against "the older families -- the members of what the English call... 'the governing class.'" Buckley, no neo-con, was the original master at specifically defending economic elitism by redefining the elite as the educated professional class, rather than the wealthy. (And it is worth noting that this conflict within one university, detailed in the superb recent book The Guardians, by Geoffrey Kabaservice -- which I hope to have more to say about -- was also the breeding ground of George W. Bush, and probably explains much of his hostility to what he considers the "Establishment" and to Yale. Buckley's act of defining the faculty as the elite, against the shared interests of "the older families" and the random 2000 was one of the most daring intellectual maneuvers of all time, and surely would have influenced the worldview of an academically floundering, old-family reactionary undergraduate.

Nixon and Agnew were the other great masters of the redefinition of "elite" to mean educated liberals rather than the wealthy.

The problem with Ehrenreich's distortion of the history is that it treats the idea of a disconnected professional class as if it is merely a joke, a scam, the big lie. But the reason that this trope has been so effective for conservatives like Buckley and opportunists like Nixon is that there was some element of truth to it. Kennedy's vision of consensus, in which the big political conflicts are gone and we defer to experts on technical problems, turned out to be wrong, in part because the technical experts of the 1960s didn't understand that people didn't want to feel they were pawns in their sociological and economic experiments. (Plus racism and a bunch of other factors that the experts didn't appreciate either.) As time has gone on, changing income patterns mean that wealth -- if not extreme wealth -- is now more closely aligned to professional status, giving more credence to the idea that the educated professionals who are more likely to be socially liberal, also represent the economic elite. In other words, as there are fewer $80,000/year manufacturing workers, and the only ticket to the upper-middle class is through education, education itself becomes a suspect classification, easily manipulated for political and polemical purposes. As the cultural differences that David Brooks makes too much of, such as between church-going and non-church-going Americans, begin to correspond to economic security, this resentment is easier to stoke. On the other hand, as Ruy Teixera and John Judis conclude, it doesn't really matter because pretty soon there will be more of us (that is, educated professionals) than of them. But that's not necessarily a comforting thought.

My main point is just that the only way to respond to and beat the Buckley-Bush politics of elite anti-elitism is to understand why it works and what in it is true, which I think Bill Clinton understood and so does John Edwards.

Ehrenreich's second and third column didn't provoke such a strong reaction, although I thought both (one comparing George Bush to George III, and the other attacking Bill Cosby for his charge that black students squander educational opportunities) were overstated. This is not the Times' best columnist, at least not yet.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 9, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack