Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Krugman on Obama

I'm second to no one in my respect for Paul Krugman. He's been a guiding torch in the darkness of the Bush years, and I think he's largely correct in his quibbling with Obama's rhetoric on Social Security and health care. But his latest column is puzzling.

He raises the not unreasonable concern that Obama's "let's all come together" unity instincts will serve him poorly in office, particularly for expanding health care, where the fight can be expected to be bitter, and where he'll have to face down the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbies. That's a debatable point. When it comes to governing, it's clear he's not going to end the war in Iraq and expand health care by sitting around the Oval Office singing "Kumbaya." It's unlikely that Obama is this naive.

Krugman melds this concern with the entirely separate claim that a candidate with a populist firebrand message would get more votes:

There’s a strong populist tide running in America right now. For example, a recent Democracy Corps survey of voter discontent found that the most commonly chosen phrase explaining what’s wrong with the country was “Big businesses get whatever they want in Washington.”

And there’s every reason to believe that the Democrats can win big next year if they run with that populist tide. The latest evidence came from focus groups run by both Fox News and CNN during last week’s Democratic debate: both declared Mr. Edwards the clear winner.

That's it? Focus groups from one debate and a Democratic poll which show people are anti-business? I'm surprised that Krugman would load such an important conclusion on such weak ground.

Back during the Dean campaign, I was convinced by George Lakoff and others that an anti-business message is an electoral loser. They argued that people identify strongly with their employers (polls show this--I'll look this up for a later post) and so that when a candidate attacks businesses, they feel attacked themselves. Instead of "business is the bad guy," a much better message is that "we need to ensure that businesses play by the rules."

For Obama, there's another set of considerations. While the unity theme may simply be his nature, I think that a long time ago he realized that a black man in America is never going to get elected to the presidency (or the Senate) as a rebel rouser. Dean's experience shows that it's hard enough for a white guy to get elected with an appeal to outrage; if Obama was saying the things Edwards is saying these days, many people would be hearing Louis Farrakhan. Sadly, even in today's multiracial society, many whites don't know enough African Americans to have a wide spectrum of personality types in their heads. So someone who sounds at all like a fighting black man will evoke Farrakhan or Malcolm X. I think this explains both his non-populism and his deliberate coolness in debates.

Would a generic outraged populist get more votes than a candidate sounding unity themes? Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm sure, though, that being that populist was never an option for Obama.

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