Monthly Archives: September 2010

EJ Dionne tells Obama to take electoral advice from Bernie Sanders — who, Dionne points out, “actually is a socialist and believes devoutly in grass-roots, class-based politics” — and detects encouraging signs that Obama, finally, is doing just that. Rallying progressives is indeed the right strategy, says Dionne, and the polls suggest that Obama’s campaigning shift to the left is working.

His base-rousing speech to a “boisterous” rally at the University of Wisconsin, says Dionne, “reflected the White House’s realisation that Sanders is right…”

The president was not reluctant to draw class lines or ideological distinctions. He cast Republican support for a $700 billion tax reduction for the wealthy against the cuts it could force in Head Start and student loans. He criticized his opponents’ “blind faith in the market” and the idea of letting “corporations play by their own rules.”

Thus the irony: A president who largely disdained a mobilizing strategy for his first year and a half in office has returned to his community-organizer roots to try to salvage an election. Here’s the further irony: He has a real chance of pulling it off, which leads to a question. If Obama succeeds, will he continue to keep his supporters engaged and “fired up”, as Sanders suggests he should? Or will he go back to an insider strategy that helped bring him to the brink of this precipice?

Ann Bernstein of South Africa’s Centre for Development and Enterprise gave a talk about her new book — The Case for Business in Developing Countries — at the Cato Institute yesterday, and I was her discussant. I like the book a lot. It gives a view from the developing world of the centrality of private enterprise in economic growth and social progress. It makes some well-targeted and intelligently nuanced criticisms of rich-country anti-business NGOs and the corporate social responsibility movement. Multinational corporations, she says, should stop apologising for capitalism and be more forthright about the benefits. Elaborating on Milton Friedman’s famous remark that the social responsibility of business is to make profits, she says:

I think the first responsibility of companies is to earn profits and be successful decent companies, and that modern business, just by doing business, has an enormous positive impact in direct and indirect ways that companies should get a lot better at communicating. I’m not saying that the business of business is only business. Especially in developing countries, life is more complicated…”

That is from a Cato podcast of an interview with the author. Have a listen.

Thanks to Lexington at The Economist for the link to Michael Klarman’s lecture on the constitution. Interesting stuff, though some of Klarman’s points seems a little overstated and (as a result) at odds with each other.

I have four points I want to make today against constitutional idolatry, which is my label for our misguided tendency to blindly worship the Constitution, giving it credit for all the things we love and honor about our country.

(1) The Framers’ constitution, to a large degree, represented values we should abhor or at least reject today.

(2) There are parts of the Constitution with which we are still stuck today even though we would never freely choose them and they are impossible to defend based on contemporary values.

(3) For the most part, the Constitution is irrelevant to the current political design of our nation.

(4) The rights protections we do enjoy today, the importance of which I do not minimize, are mostly a function of political and social mores, which have dramatically evolved over time and owe relatively little to courts using the Constitution to protect them.

Under (2) he puts two senators for every state, a dispensation he calls “crazy”, because it leads to enormous over-representation of lightly populated states. Whether or not you can defend this formula, its political consequences are painfully (if you are a Democrat) apparent. Without it, the US would be a different country. Yet under (3), supplemented by (4), Klarman argues that the constitution is “for the most part” irrelevant.

Jarring…but as I say a thought-provoking lecture, well worth reading.

The Obama administration began with an embarrassment of economic talent, but the surfeit is disappearing. Larry Summers will step down as director of the National Economic Council at the end of the year. This follows the departure of Christina Romer from the Council of Economic Advisers and Peter Orszag from the Office of Management and Budget. The turnover creates an opportunity – one which, critics say, Barack Obama should seize. The president, they argue, needs an economic-policy reset.

Was it a good idea for Republicans to issue their Pledge to America barely a month before the mid-term elections? I doubt it. They were doing pretty well as the party that just says no. That response to Democratic rule, after all, is probably a fair reflection of the electorate’s mood.

Democrats weren’t getting far with their argument, true as it may be, that their opponents are bereft of ideas. However well Republicans do in November, they will not be running the country next year — Obama and his veto pen will be there — so they are under no real obligation to make promises about their policies. Whatever promises they do make will risk seeming phoney. All the Republicans needed to do between now and election day was avoid giving the enemy sustenance by saying or doing something stupid: for many of them, a big enough challenge in its own right. Tactically speaking, the publication of this document was a needless risk: not much upside and plenty of downside.

The manner of Elizabeth Warren’s new appointment was understandable, but at the same time a sign of a disturbing tendency. The Senate confirmation process has slowed to such a crawl that it is making it impossible for the executive to do its job properly. But swerving around its requirements — as the White House did by giving her two non-confirmable posts, and setting up the formal pretence than Warren will be a mere Treasury functionary — is the very opposite of the procedural simplicity and straightforwardness that Warren, in other contexts, always calls for.

Bruce Ackerman argues in this column that the problem is worse than that. An imperial presidency is emerging, he says. Most interesting is the solution he proposes. He wants the White House and the Senate to strike a grand bargain.

This would be a good time to re-read Joshua Green’s profile of Tim Geithner, and the subsequent discussion (my comment on the profile; Josh’s response to that and other comments; my response to the response). To remind, that portrait described a Geithner who had put himself firmly in charge of economic policy — more firmly than appearances suggested. I remarked that I found it hard to imagine Larry putting up with the subordinate role this picture implied: if Josh was right, why was he still in the White House? Well, we have the answer, and just as Josh suggested: after the end of this year, he no longer will be.

The Tea Party’s startling win in the Delaware Republican primary is a cruel blow to Grand Old Party hopes of gaining control in the US Senate. Christine O’Donnell was the Tea Party’s choice and had the backing of Sarah Palin, darling of the conservative insurgents.

Paul Krugman and Robin Wells review three books on the financial crisis, including Raghuram Rajan’s “Fault Lines”. I thought Rajan’s book was excellent, and said so in this FT review. The Krugmans are not at all impressed. See what you think — and when you have read their review, be sure to read Rajan’s response.

Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics takes a relaxed view of the O’Donnell nomination. Yes, he says, it almost certainly means Republicans will lose a seat they would otherwise have won. At the same time, it doesn’t affect their chances of taking the Senate “all that much”. Given that control of the Senate may turn on the result in one or two states, I have some trouble holding both of those ideas in my mind at the same time.

Trende goes on to say that “this doesn’t mark the end of the GOP”, reminding us that the Republican party has been torn between its establishment and its base many times before — which is true enough. Then he says:

What’s different this year is the depth and intensity of the anti-establishment anger.  The same forces that ended Mike Castle’s career are the same forces that are propelling the GOP toward historic midterm election gains. In other words, some pundits aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. When historians look back on the 2010 elections, O’Donnell’s win over Castle is likely to be nothing more than a footnote in a broader story of what will likely be a very good GOP year.

It’s right that tea-party enthusiasm is helping to propel the GOP “toward historic midterm election gains”, but disaffection with Democrats among centrists and independents is, I would guess, at least as important for that outcome, and has nothing to do with the tea party. If the Democrats get whipped in November, it will be as much because independents turned against them as because the Republicans got out their base. The O’Donnell nomination might make a lot of independents wonder whether they want to vote for either party. Most likely the Republican base would have turned out regardless. In other words, tea-party enthusiasm carried to the absurdity of nominating O’Donnell is a net negative in electoral terms–not just in Delaware, but nationally.

Beyond November, tea-party enthusiasm could propel Sarah Palin to the Republican presidential nomination — the O’Donnell phenomenon scaled up to the national level. Something to think about. O’Donnell’s win over Castle might, as Trende says, prove to be no more than a footnote this year. On the other hand, it might be a sign of things to come.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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