Krugman’s blog, 2/16/16

There were three posts yesterday.  The first was “My Unicorn Problem:”

It has been an interesting few months on the progressive side of the political debate, and I mean that in the worst way. A significant number of progressives are very, very excited by the unexpected support for Bernie Sanders, and are shocked and horrified to find many — I think most — liberal policy wonks rather skeptical. For me this is somewhat familiar territory: I was skeptical about Barack Obama’s promises of transcendence back in 2008, too. And then as now a fair number of enthusiasts took no time at all to declare that I was a corrupt villain, a tool of the oligarchs, desperate for a job with Hillary etc.. OK, this too shall pass. But I thought it might be worth saying a bit more about where people like me find ourselves.

First of all, to say what should be but sometimes apparently isn’t obvious, what you would ideally want and what you think can be achieved — and even what you think should be an election platform — aren’t the same thing. What I and most of my wonk friends would like to see is what the late Robert Heilbroner used to call Slightly Imaginary Sweden — or these days, maybe Diversified Denmark. That is, a strong social safety net that protects everyone against avoidable misery, workers with substantial bargaining power, strong environmental policy; not an equalized society, not a Utopia, but someplace where basic decency is a fundamental principle.

But nothing like that is going to happen in America any time soon. If we’re going to have any kind of radical change in the next few years and probably the next couple of decades, it will come from the right, not the left.

As Matt O’Brien rightly said recently, even the incremental changes Hillary Clinton is proposing are very unlikely to get through Congress; the radical changes Bernie Sanders is proposing wouldn’t happen even if Democrats retook the House. O’Brien says that the Democratic primary is “like arguing what’s more real: a magical unicorn or a regular unicorn. In either case, you’re still running on a unicorn platform.” This is, alas, probably true: the platforms of the candidates are better seen as aspirational than as programs at all likely to happen.

But in that case, why not go for the magical unicorn? A couple of reasons.

One is that there are degrees of realism: a program that could be implemented in part if Democrats retake the House might turn out to be a useful guide relatively soon, while a program that requires a political revolution won’t.

Another is that, perhaps inevitably, the Sanders insistence on the need for magical unicorns has led to invocations of economic as well as political magic. I warned a while back that even Sanders wasn’t willing to level with voters about what his ideals would require — that, in particular, he was assuming unrealistic savings in order to gloss over the reality that quite a few middle-class Americans would be net losers from a transition to single payer. I’m not alone in raising such concerns, and not just about the health plan.

And this could matter a lot in a general election. For sure the Republican, whoever he is, will be offering plans that are obvious nonsense; but if the Democrat is also offering a plan that doesn’t add up, you know that the media will portray the situation as symmetric, even if it isn’t. (And it wouldn’t be: whatever is problematic about the Sanders platform, GOP fantasies are in a whole other league.) This is why it’s important to bring up the criticisms of Sanders now, not wait until later — and it’s also why the campaign’s knee-jerk response of attacking the messengers is such a bad one. It might work in the primary, but it definitely won’t work later on.

OK, so I’m not happy with magical unicorns as a campaign strategy. But I understand the problem, which is also the problem Clinton faces: among young people in particular, being a wet blanket is no way to be hugely popular. “No, we can’t — at best, maybe a little” isn’t all that inspiring to people who want uplift. Realistically, the slogan should actually be “They shall not pass”, which actually could be inspiring. But that’s probably for the general.

This poses an interesting problem for Clinton — who will, if nominated, be pretty good at portraying herself as the defender of Obama’s achievements, but needs to get to that point. Can she try to match Sanders in uplift? Probably not, because it would be insincere and come off that way. She’s a veteran of many years of partisan trench warfare, of personal vilification, of seeing how hard positive change is (and yes, some of that applies to me too, although not to remotely the same degree.) She’s not going to be able to promise magic without being obviously false. Sanders, on the other hand, probably believes what he’s saying; the rude awakening still lies ahead.

Now, Clinton will probably get the nomination — in part because African-American voters, much more than young whites, know all too well how hard it is to achieve change. So far, at least, polls don’t show Sanders making major inroads in the minority vote. And, as I said, she’s actually pretty well-positioned for the general.

But you see the problem. It’s a rough time for progressives who don’t believe in magic.

Yesterday’s second post was “Coming at the Graduate Center:”

At 6:30 this Thursday; will be streamed at this link.

The last post yesterday was “Dueling Headlines:”

NBC News: Clinton Maintains National Lead Over Sanders

Politico: National poll: Sanders closing the gap with Clinton

Fun fact: they’re talking about the same NBC/Survey Monkey poll, which shows this trend:

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