Saturday, February 02, 2008

Krugman the Clintonian; or, More Lessons from 1992

Professor Paul Krugman, MIT, in 1993.

Over the last year, Paul Krugman has often questioned and criticized Barack Obama. When there were several candidates in the race, I didn't think much about it. I supported Edwards (and Richardson) and shared some of Krugman's concerns about Obama, even posting excerpts from his columns here at ZONE.

In the last few weeks, however, as it became clear that the race was coming down to Obama and Clinton, Krugman's criticisms escalated in frequency and negativity. After reading his column on Monday, Lessons of 1992, I decided that something just didn't smell right. A gut feeling told me to do a little research of my own on 1992.

What Krugman didn't bother to mention in his trip down memory lane was his involvement in the Clinton campaign in 1992. A brash young professor from MIT, Krugman was considered a rising star in the field of economics, and while helping Clinton during the campaign [see update below], his name was frequently mentioned as a strong candidate to become chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. An article in The Economist from September 12 of that year called him "an unabashed Clintonian."

Some bits and pieces of the story:

Dr. Krugman is credited with formulating candidate Bill Clinton's economic policy for the 1992 campaign and was strongly considered for chairmanship of the Council of Economic Advisers, the job now held by Laura Tyson.

“The Krugman Paradox.” Daniel J. McConville. Industry Week. November 21, 1994.

Paul Krugman, young, number-nimble MIT economist, invents a theory that seems to justify the kind of government economic intervention much favored in some Democratic circles, then contributes his considerable talents to getting Bill Clinton elected president.

"Peddling Controversy." The Boston Globe. March 29, 1994.

In the widening circle of academic economists advising Clinton, those considered influential and thus candidates for policy slots or membership on the President's Council of Economic Advisers include three from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Nobel Prize winner Robert M. Solow, Rudiger Dornbusch and Paul Krugman.

"Clinton's economic brain trust; With the campaign focused on the economy, advisers come under new scrutiny." Peter G. Gosselin. The Boston Globe. October 25, 1992.

"Paul Krugman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an economist who is mentioned as a possible chief economic adviser to President Clinton."

"Economy Stirs, But Not Enough to Let Clinton Relax." International Herald-Tribune. November 17, 1992.
Perhaps more knowledgeable readers knew that Krugman was involved with the Clintons in 1992, but I didn't. It would've been nice for him to mention the fact. Does it matter? Well, let's just say that his sepia-toned account of Bill Clinton during that time period definitely sounds like it was written by a Clinton insider rather than by a neutral observer. While I respect Krugman a lot, especially for his stand against the war in Iraq, his Obama-bashing has taken on a different light. While he has been an Edwards supporter, in a two-person race, Krugman has gone back to 1992 himself, supporting a Clinton once again.

But if we're going to go back to 1992, let's really take a look around.

"Why does he so often come across as an evasive, philandering ol' Southern pol insensitive to ethical conflicts?

Many voters got their first impression of him from a string of embarrassing episodes. First came Gennifer Flowers, claiming a long relationship with the Governor . . . Then accusations of escaping the draft in 1969 . . . Then lame answers to questions about his relationship with a savings and loan head subject to state regulation . . . Last Sunday, he admitted trying marijuana in words ("didn't inhale") so grudging as to invite ridicule."
Which Republican attack group was that?

The vicious, right-wing hit squad at the New York Times, from an editorial on April 5, 1992. And they were endorsing the guy.

Hillary Clinton on 60 Minutes in January 1992.
"A considerable segment of the public is uneasy, it would seem, because it has developed deep-seated doubts about what kind of man the Arkansas Governor is. 46% doubted that he had the integrity needed to be President."

46% of the general public?

46% of Republicans?

No, that was 46% of the DEMOCRATS voting in the New York primary in April, 1992.

In 2008, when the Democrats have offered several good candidates, we can forget what 1992 was like. There were serious doubts about Clinton's integrity within his own party. But he didn't have any real competition for the nomination. Paul Tsongas had to drop out, leaving Jerry Brown as Clinton's only rival as the race progressed. Which explains why the Times endorsed Clinton with so much reservation.

How discouraged were Democrats about Clinton at that point?

"In the New York primary Tuesday, the turnout was exceptionally low, 29 percent of the electorate backed Mr. Tsongas, a ghost candidate [he had dropped out] . . . two-thirds of the voters said they were dissatisfied with the choice presented to them."

67% were dissatisfied with the choice - which was only between Clinton and Brown at that point. Compare that with today. And it wasn't just the voting public who was uneasy at the time.

"[T]here are a lot of people who are terrified [about] all the character questions, all the negatives about Clinton."
That was a Democratic member of the House, a Super-delegate who, even after Clinton had basically won the primaries, refused to endorse him. Another Super-delegate unsure of his endorsement at the time:

Representative Dennis E. Eckart of Ohio, more willing perhaps to speak on the record than many of his colleagues because he has announced his retirement from the House. . . . "Look at the exit polls. People have terrible doubts about this guy, and we're talking about Democrats."

"Like Voters, Superdelegates Have Doubts About Clinton." New York Times. April 1992.

And the Unions?

When the Democratic race was all but over and Jerry Brown the only alternative:

Union leaders in that state strongly oppose Clinton and would probably rebel if any effort were made to give him a unified endorsement from national blue-collar unions. . . . [S]everal key blue-collar unions, especially the United Auto Workers, remain angry over Clinton's labor record and unsure of his commitment to labor issues.

"There is strong resentment here towards this guy," said Frank Garrison, Michigan's AFL-CIO president.
Krugman is right to say that Obama will be set upon by the Republican attack machine. That's a given. But it's disingenuous to compare Obama with the Bill Clinton of 1992.

In 2008, Republicans going after Barack Obama will be aiming at a very different target. And no one can conclude by Clinton's example that new Republican attacks will be as effective. In fact, Obama has been able to attract some Republicans the way Reagan attracted Democrats. That's an advantage that Bill and Hillary Clinton have never had. This is a crucial issue for the general election, because Obama will win votes from Independents and moderate Republicans, whereas Hillary will not, especially if she's the candidate against John McCain.

Because of his integrity issues, Bill Clinton never had the full support of his own party in 1992. How can Krugman compare that to Barack Obama's relationship with the Democratic Party in 2008? Indeed, whereas many Democrats didn't like or trust Clinton in 1992, and turnout in primaries was abysmal, Obama has inspired large numbers of voters from different backgrounds and helped bring about record turnouts in this year's primary contests.

Also, Obama has a much better relationship with the press than Bill Clinton did. Another little point we forget about 1992: As each integrity issue came up on the campaign trial, the press tried to investigate. Clinton succeeded in changing the subject, blaming the media for hounding him. He even ran attack ads against the press at one point. One communication historian at the time said that even Nixon, as much as he hated the media, had never run attack ads against them. In the end, Bill Clinton really did have an affair with Gennifer Flowers, as he later confessed under oath. The press wasn't wrong to investigate the story. As artful as Clinton was at deflecting negative media coverage, he paid a price for his attacks on the press by establishing a combative relationship with them from the beginning. Again, that's a considerable difference with Obama in 2008. As an Edwards supporter, I was constantly frustrated by the media's love affair with Obama.

Finally, the comparison is problematic because Barack Obama simply isn't Bill Clinton, and he won't respond to the Republican assault in the same way. Krugman simply has no way of knowing if Obama's methods will be effective or not. For all of Bill Clinton's supposed political ability, I wouldn't say he ever managed a very good strategy in dealing with Republican opponents.

It’s useful to revisit the 1992 campaign, but not for the reasons Krugman states. If anything, comparing 1992 to 2008 makes me realize how much stronger the Democratic Party is right now, and how much better of a candidate Barack Obama will be in a general election. He doesn’t need Ross Perot to take away 19% of the vote. He can defeat Jon McCain on his own. If Krugman had gone back and looked at 1992 more thoroughly, beyond his own involvement in the Clinton campaign, he might have realized that.

UPDATE: Krugman gives his own account of his involvement in the Clinton campaign at his blog. (Scroll down to "My Evil Ways.")

Now I learn that it’s important that I disclose that I was Bill Clinton’s chief economic adviser in 1992. This is also news to me, since I wasn’t aware that I worked for the campaign at all.

In fact, shortly after Bill C. was nominated I sort of auditioned — there was a gathering in Little Rock of more or less liberal economists, including the late Jim Tobin, Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, Alan Blinder, and yours truly. And I failed the test: I disagreed with the candidate about deindustrialization, and never heard from the campaign again.

I was, by the way, lucky. I’m temperamentally unsuited to public office, and it would have been a great disaster had I been offered a job.

I've modified my intro.

The citations I list can be verified. From reading articles from that time period, it sounds like Krugman played more than a cursory role in Clinton's economic policy. One of the Boston Globe articles definitely includes him as one of the, "academic economists advising Clinton," and that he was "considered influential." And there were numerous articles at the time saying he was a leading candidate to Clinton's chairman of the CEA.

And the Economist still called him an "unabashed Clintonian."

In any case, he seems to have had enough of a relationship with the Clintons to be invited to Little Rock and be considered for a major economic position within the administration. That's still interesting given his increasingly frequent and harsh attacks on an opponent of one of the Clintons. He should've mentioned it earlier.

Finally, it doesn't change the problems with his argument in Monday's column.


Liam said...

That's interesting. At first I though Krugman was just a cautioning voice against too much enthusiasm, and he seemed to be more pro-Edwards than anything else, but lately his anti-Obama attitude has seemed more strident.

I respect Krugman, but you're right to call him on this.

cowboyangel said...

I respect Krugman, too. And he's offered an explanation of his role with the Clintons in 1992 on his own blog. See my update.

His change in tone seems to have coincided with the demise of Edwards' candidacy. Even without really supporting Obama, I've noticed the change. And the frequency. Almost every column right now attacks Obama one way or another.

Strident - that's the word I should have used. I think you nailed it. He didn't seem strident three months ago. But I guess as the campaign has heated up, so has he.

Jeff said...

Ah, these frickin' Massachusetts guys...

Fascinating. I didn't know that about Krugman. I didn't read him back in the early 90s, and since the NYT makes you pay to read editorials now, I haven't read him enough lately to have noticed that he's been critical of Obama.

I'm shocked to hear that he was so tight with the Clintons, because as a DLC Democrat, in my view, Clinton's economic policies were hardly more liberal than a Republicans. He raised taxes, but in a lot of ways, Richard Nixon's economic policies were further to the left than Clinton's. Robert Reich doesn't sound anything like Krugman to me.

I'm about a third of the way through Krugman's book, The Conscience of a Liberal. It's quite good, and he's unabashedly nostalgic for the New Deal. I have a hard time seeing him supporting triangulated Clintonomics.

What are you specific concerns around Obama's policies? It's true that he doesn't want mandated health care (compulsory insurance), but I do think that wanting to look at the cost side first is defensible.

cowboyangel said...


The NYT stopped charging for content a few months ago. You can access everything for free again.

After reading his explanation, maybe Krugman wasn't as tight with the Clintons as I first thought. Hard to tell.

From what I gather, he has changed since 1992. So, maybe he was more inclined towards Clinton's economic policies back then. Clinton may have changed as well, moving more to the right after Krugman went down to Little Rock for their little chat.

I'm too tired now to really go into my concerns about Obama. I've mentioned them before. When I talked about reading his book, for one.

Personally, I don't see much policy difference between him and Hillary. They both come out of the DLC. Joe Lieberman was one of Obama's mentors. Their health-care proposals are slightly different, but I think they're both pretty much center-right (economically) Democrats who would pursue almost identical goals. In terms of foreign policy, I give Obama credit for opposing the war in 2003, but I don't see any big difference in how they're going to approach Iraq. He might be a little less hawkish than Hillary.

But, I notice that since Edwards dropped out, I've lost some enthusiasm about the campaign. He represented a real difference, I thought, in terms of economics and approach to corporate power. His absence at the debate on Thursday was quite noticeable, I thought. Hillary and Obama did't really have much to argue about, did they? Health-care and the vote on Iraq. The rest of the night, they were pretty much two peas in a pod.

I hope Obama gets the nomination. Though his policies may not be different than Hillary, I trust him a little more (though the hint of a messianic complex still makes me nervous), and I appreciate his way of bringing people together. Also, I think he'd be a better candidate against McCain.