Krugman’s blog, 1/19/16

There were two posts yesterday.  The first was “Weakened at Bernie’s:”

With the release of Bernie Sanders’ health plan — or actually, health “plan” — the Democratic primary is coming into much better focus. Sanders is still a long shot for the nomination, but is a serious enough contender that he deserves some real scrutiny. And it’s important to be aware that there are bigger problems with his candidacy than lack of political realism.

Just to be clear: Hillary Clinton is no paragon of political virtue, although she’s nothing like the monster everyone on the right and some people on the left like to portray. Actually, on policy she has generally been pretty good (Iraq aside, but that was a special and awful time). Health reform, in fact, as actually enacted is much more like her proposal in 2008 than Obama’s — during that campaign Obama ran some quite ugly Harry-and-Louise type adsattacking the individual mandate, which she correctly insisted was essential. Her biggest vice, from my point of view, is listening too much to consultants who want to make cheap shots, like the claim that the Sanders plan would kill Medicaid, when her real strength comes when she lets her inner wonk and fundamental toughnessshine through.

But here’s the thing: we now have a clear view of Sanders’ positions on two crucial issues, financial reform and health care. And in both cases his positioning is disturbing — not just because it’s politically unrealistic to imagine that we can get the kind of radical overhaul he’s proposing, but also because he takes his own version of cheap shots. Not at people — he really is a fundamentally decent guy — but by going for easy slogans and punting when the going gets tough.

On finance: Sanders has made restoring Glass-Steagal and breaking up the big banks the be-all and end-all of his program. That sounds good, but it’s nowhere near solving the real problems. The core of what went wrong in 2008 was the rise of shadow banking; too big to fail was at best marginal, and as Mike Konczal notes, pushing the big banks out of shadow banking, on its own, could make the problem worse by causing the risky stuff to “migrate elsewhere, often to places where there is less regulatory infrastructure.”

On health care: leave on one side the virtual impossibility of achieving single-payer. Beyond the politics, the Sanders “plan” isn’t just lacking in detail; as Ezra Klein notes, it both promises more comprehensive coverage than Medicare or for that matter single-payer systems in other countries, and assumes huge cost savings that are at best unlikely given that kind of generosity. This lets Sanders claim that he could make it work with much lower middle-class taxes than would probably be needed in practice.

To be harsh but accurate: the Sanders health plan looks a little bit like a standard Republican tax-cut plan, which relies on fantasies about huge supply-side effects to make the numbers supposedly add up. Only a little bit: after all, this is a plan seeking to provide health care, not lavish windfalls on the rich — and single-payer really does save money, whereas there’s no evidence that tax cuts deliver growth. Still, it’s not the kind of brave truth-telling the Sanders campaign pitch might have led you to expect.

And look: if the political theory behind supporting Sanders is that the American people will vote for radical change if you’re honest about what’s involved, the campaign’s evident unwillingness to fully confront the issues, its reliance on magic asterisks, very much weakens that claim.

Yesterday’s second post was “A Small Silent Minority:”

My colleague David Brooks issues an anguished plea for the Republican establishment to get its act together. I feel his pain. But I really wonder when he says this:

There’s a silent majority of hopeful, practical, programmatic Republicans.

Not according to the polls: the average of recent polls shows Trump, Cruz, and Carson with the support of roughly two-thirds of likely Republican primary voters, while all the establishment candidates combined draw barely 20 percent. And do we really imagine that any significant fraction of the overwhelmingly dominant blowhard bloc consists of moderate voters who just don’t realize what they would be getting from Trump or Cruz?

Also worth bearing in mind are the kinds of things even establishment candidates say these days. Not one has anything positive to say about what looks increasingly like highly successful diplomacy in the Persian Gulf. And Marco Rubio, the establishment’s last best hope, says he bought a gun to defend his family from ISIS.

The point is that this primary doesn’t look like an aberration, in which the GOP majority is losing its way; it looks like an outbreak of honesty, with the GOP majority finally going for candidates saying what it always believed.

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