Oh, this is just precious. Bobo, the Republican party’s Gunga Din, has decided to ‘splain to us “What Moderation Means.” He squeaks that if the presidential candidates are going to spend the last days of their campaigns pandering to moderate voters, they should do it right. Yeah, Bobo. You go right ahead and tell Money Boo Boo how to pander. You probably know better how to do it. Mr. Cohen addresses “The Timbuktu Question.” He says the surreal “foreign policy” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney showed that America has little interest in a serious discussion of the world. Well, he spends most of his time out of the country so he may not recognize American kabuki when he sees it. In “Pointing Toward Prosperity” Prof. Krugman says Mitt Romney and President Obama both are promoting plans for economic recovery. He has a question: Just how do the two plans stack up? Here’s Bobo:
Over the past month, Mitt Romney has aggressively appealed to moderate voters. President Obama, for some reason, hasn’t. But, in what he thought was an off-the-record interview with The Des Moines Register, Obama laid out a pretty moderate agenda for his second term.
It occurred to me that this might be a good time to describe what being a moderate means.
First, let me describe what moderation is not. It is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Only people who know nothing about moderation think it means that.
Moderates start with a political vision, but they get it from history books, not philosophy books. That is, a moderate isn’t ultimately committed to an abstract idea. Instead, she has a deep reverence for the way people live in her country and the animating principle behind that way of life. In America, moderates revere the fact that we are a nation of immigrants dedicated to the American dream — committed to the idea that each person should be able to work hard and rise.
This animating principle doesn’t mean that all Americans think alike. It means that we have a tradition of conflict. Over the centuries, we have engaged in a series of long arguments around how to promote the American dream — arguments that pit equality against achievement, centralization against decentralization, order and community against liberty and individualism.
The moderate doesn’t try to solve those arguments. There are no ultimate solutions. The moderate tries to preserve the tradition of conflict, keeping the opposing sides balanced. She understands that most public issues involve trade-offs. In most great arguments, there are two partially true points of view, which sit in tension. The moderate tries to maintain a rough proportion between them, to keep her country along its historic trajectory.
Americans have prospered over the centuries because we’ve kept a rough balance between things like individual opportunity and social cohesion, local rights and federal power. At any moment, new historical circumstances, like industrialization or globalization, might upset the balance. But the political system gradually finds a new equilibrium.
The moderate creates her policy agenda by looking to her specific circumstances and seeing which things are being driven out of proportion at the current moment. This idea — that you base your agenda on your specific situation — may seem obvious, but immoderate people often know what their solutions are before they define the problems.
For a certain sort of conservative, tax cuts and smaller government are always the answer, no matter what the situation. For a certain sort of liberal, tax increases for the rich and more government programs are always the answer.
The moderate does not believe that there are policies that are permanently right. Situations matter most. Tax cuts might be right one decade but wrong the next. Tighter regulations might be right one decade, but if sclerosis sets in then deregulation might be in order.
Today, we face our own set of imbalances. Inequality is clearly out of whack. The information age, family breakdown and globalization have widened income gaps. Government spending and government debt are also out of whack. The aging population and runaway health care costs have pushed budgets to the breaking point. There’s also been a hardening of the economic arteries, slowing growth.
The moderate sees three big needs that are in tension with one another: inequality, debt and low growth. She’s probably going to have a pretty eclectic mix of policies: some policies from the Democratic column to reduce inequality, some policies from the Republican column to reduce debt.
Just as the founding fathers tried a mixed form of government, moderates like pluralistic agendas, mixing and matching from columns A, B and C. They try to create harmonious blends of policies that don’t, at first glance, go together.
Being moderate does not mean being tepid. It will likely take some pretty energetic policies to reduce inequality or control debt. The best moderates can smash partisan categories and be hard-charging in two directions simultaneously.
Moderation is also a distinct ethical disposition. Just as the moderate suspects imbalance in the country, so she suspects it in herself. She distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity and admires self-restraint, intellectual openness and equipoise.
There are many moderates in this country, but they have done a terrible job of organizing themselves, building institutions or even organizing around common causes. There are some good history books that describe political moderation, like “A Virtue for Courageous Minds” by Aurelian Craiutu, a political scientist at Indiana University. But there are few good manifestoes.
Therefore, there’s a lot of ignorance about what it means to be moderate. If politicians are going to try to pander to the moderate mind-set, they should do it right. I hope this column has helped.
Yeah… All little Bobo wants to do is help… Right. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
Up front I’d like to make clear that I am very pleased Mitt Romney got North Mali into the foreign policy debate — twice.
He also, by the way, referred to it as “the northern part of Mali.”
Americans were riveted. The Timbuktu questions had seemed in danger of getting forgotten. It would have been in good company, along with the euro zone (and its little crisis), NATO, India, Brazil, the rest of Africa, the bloody fruitless “surge” in Afghanistan, and assorted other minor topics.
As for climate change it was not so much forgotten as nixed. And drone warfare was just hunky-dory.
This was a surreal U.S. “foreign policy” debate. Europeans, who got less truck than northern Mali, must be wondering what Americans are smoking. Asians, who featured principally as job stealers and currency manipulators, must be equally perplexed.
The world was a vague expanse out there peopled not so much by human beings as by good guys and bad guys. Vladimir Putin was the only leader with a name — President Obama has no friends, he only has allies with whom he does business.
The debate featured the moderator, Bob Schieffer, saying, “Let me get back to foreign policy,” then pleading, “Can I just get back?” and at last, after a long interlude on (domestic) education, declaring, “Let me — I want to try to shift it.”
But Mitt and Barack were not to be shifted. The euro, whose future is a core U.S. strategic issue, only received attention in so far as Romney insisted that the United States could be heading in a Greek direction, a suggestion that is just farcical.
The United States is self-absorbed. It is licking its wounds after two bad wars. It has, to judge by this, little interest in a serious discussion of the world.
I was waiting for one from left field. But Schieffer was not very imaginative. Something like: “In a hyperconnected world dominated by social media, does traditional U.S. diplomacy have any place? Aren’t Google and Twitter more important than the size of the navy?”
Or: “Governor Romney, a music video called ‘Gangnam Style’ by a pudgy South Korean male rapper called PSY has been viewed more than 500 million times on YouTube. It features his rollicking dance through the hypermaterialistic world of Gangnam, a Seoul district where the nation’s movers and shakers are concentrated. Now, 500 million is equivalent to about seven percent of the global population. What does this tell us about the state of the world and America’s relative importance in it?”
But, no, we got a debate divorced from reality in which, after all the huffing and puffing from Romney, the differences between the incumbent and his challenger came down to two things. Romney would arm the Syrian rebels where Obama, directly at least, would not. Romney would as a last resort use force to deny Iran “nuclear capacity”; Obama draws the line at a nuclear bomb. (The president also said “the clock is ticking” on Iran — a phrase so overused it should be nuked.)
But back to the Mali on Romney’s mind: I wish he had clarified whether he backs plans for an international force to retake North Mali from what he calls “Al-Qaeda-type individuals.” To study the assorted individuals of Mali (“Mitt, whatever you do, remember the northern part of Mali!”) only to punt seems a pity.
Given Romney’s new incarnation as a peacenik, it’s fair to surmise he would not favor force, in Mali or anywhere. For much of the campaign there did not seem to be a war he would not plunge into. Now peace on earth is suddenly his theme.
He used the words “peace” or “peaceful” a dozen times. As in, “Our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet.” Or, “I want to see growing peace in this country, it’s our objective.”
Well, Mitt, allow me to suggest that attempting to deny women the right to abortion will not contribute to “growing peace in this country.”
In foreign policy, as elsewhere, Romney has been, as Obama said, “all over the map.” Yet he won the debates, taken as a whole. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Obama was on walkabout in the first debate, arrogant and distant. Then, he tried to make up the ground, snapping at his opponent a little too aggressively. Romney managed to appear a little more human than the ogre of Bain — and that was enough.
Still, Romney said of the Middle East, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” Then he said, “Well my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture.” And then he said he wanted “Arab scholars” organized by the United Nations to help.
He also put the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, on the same level as the “Al-Qaeda type individuals” in Mali.
All of which makes no sense, in Washington or Timbuktu.
Well, at least he recognizes that Money Boo Boo is a black hole of ignorance when it comes to anything to do with foreign policy. Here’s Prof. Krugman:
Mitt Romney has been barnstorming the country, telling voters that he has a five-point plan to restore prosperity. And some voters, alas, seem to believe what he’s saying. So President Obama has now responded with his own plan, a little blue booklet containing 27 policy proposals. How do these two plans stack up?
Well, as I’ve said before, Mr. Romney’s “plan” is a sham. It’s a list of things he claims will happen, with no description of the policies he would follow to make those things happen. “We will cut the deficit and put America on track to a balanced budget,” he declares, but he refuses to specify which tax loopholes he would close to offset his $5 trillion in tax cuts.
Actually, if describing what you want to see happen without providing any specific policies to get us there constitutes a “plan,” I can easily come up with a one-point plan that trumps Mr. Romney any day. Here it is: Every American will have a good job with good wages. Also, a blissfully happy marriage. And a pony.
So Mr. Romney is faking it. His real plan seems to be to foster economic recovery through magic, inspiring business confidence through his personal awesomeness. But what about the man he wants to kick out of the White House?
Well, Mr. Obama’s booklet comes a lot closer to being an actual plan. Where Mr. Romney says he’ll achieve energy independence, never mind how, Mr. Obama calls for concrete steps like raising fuel efficiency standards. Mr. Romney says, “We will give our fellow citizens the skills they need,” but says nothing about how he’ll make that happen, pivoting instead to a veiled endorsement of school vouchers; Mr. Obama calls for specific things like a program to recruit math and science teachers and partnerships between businesses and community colleges.
So, is Mr. Obama offering an inspiring vision for economic recovery? No, he isn’t. His economic agenda is relatively small-bore — a bunch of modest if sensible proposals rather than a big push. More important, it’s aimed at the medium term, the economy of 2020, rather than at the clear and pressing problems of the present.
Put it this way: If you didn’t know what was actually going on in the U.S. economy, you’d think from reading the Obama plan that America was a place where workers with the right skills were in high demand, so that our big problem was that not enough people have those skills. And five or 10 years from now, America might actually look like that. Right now, however, we’re still living in a depressed economy offering poor prospects for almost everyone, including the highly educated.
Indeed, these have been really bad years for recent college graduates, who all too often can’t find anyone willing to make use of their hard-won skills that were expensive to attain. Unemployment and underemployment among recent graduates surged between 2007 and 2010, while far too many highly trained young people found themselves working in low-skill jobs. The job market for skilled workers, like that for Americans in general, is now gradually improving. But it’s still far from normal.
The point is that America is still suffering from an overall lack of demand, the result of the severe debt and financial crisis that broke out before Mr. Obama took office. In a better world, the president would be proposing bold short-term moves to move us rapidly back to full employment. But he isn’t.
O.K., we all understand why. Voters have been told over and over again that the 2009 stimulus didn’t work (actually it did, but it wasn’t big enough), and a few days before a national election is no time to try to change that big a false belief. So all that the administration feels able to offer are measures that would, one hopes, modestly accelerate the recovery already under way.
It’s disappointing, to be sure. But a slow job is better than a snow job. Mr. Obama may not be as bold as we’d like, but he isn’t actively misleading voters the way Mr. Romney is. Furthermore, if we ask what Mr. Romney would probably do in practice, including sharp cuts in programs that aid the less well-off and the imposition of hard-money orthodoxy on the Federal Reserve, it looks like a program that might well derail the recovery and send us back into recession.
And you should never forget the broader policy context. Mr. Obama may not have an exciting economic plan, but, if he is re-elected, he will get to implement a health reform that is the biggest improvement in America’s safety net since Medicare. Mr. Romney doesn’t have an economic plan at all, but he is determined not just to repeal Obamacare but to impose savage cuts in Medicaid. So never mind all those bullet points. Think instead about the 45 million Americans who either will or won’t receive essential health care, depending on who wins on Nov. 6.