On Partisan Vitriol and What It Means In The Current Environment

Keith's attack on Martin Feldstein's June 8 article in the Wall Street Journal is remarkable, although to me less for its substance than its tone. Stripped of the invective, Keith's commentary is a cogent but fairly routine defense of President Obama's economic policies since arriving in office. Feldstein's article, for its part of course, is little more than the opposite number: a routine critique of those same policies. Both are predictably partisan.

I'm not going to try to support Dr. Feldstein here, since his article in my opinion does indeed drift onto shaky ground in places. But what I do want to do is ask a question about Keith's commentary: since the debate has become largely ritualistic, why such bitter heat? Why, first of all, must we disparage Feldstein as a "partisan hack"? And if such he is, what partisan writers today can really escape this obloquy? If Keith's point is simply that Feldstein's article is essentially a recitation of current-day conservative dogma regarding the state of the economy, I would not disagree. By that standard, however, to take one prominent example, most of what Paul Krugman has written during the past three years could be dismissed as "partisan hackery" too, written from the liberal side of the fence. His articles, well-crafted though they generally are, boil down to mono-maniacal repetitions of standard neo-Keynesian economic doctrines. While it's becoming increasingly hard to learn anything new from them, I would avoid the temptation of labeling Dr. Krugman's work as hackery. He's actually pretty good, even if a bit trapped by his ideology.

And why do we have to disparage readers of the Wall Street Journal as suffering from "grotesque ignorance and gullibility", or describe the American economy as an "economic stinkpile" somehow entirely the fault of the miscreant George Bush - still the villain two and a half years after leaving office?

What I want to focus on here is not so much the economic issues under discussion as the political issue of the tone to which the debate has descended, and the causes of this devolution. I've read enough articles and blog posts from both liberals and conservatives that I'm confident in my judgment that the degree of vitriol is roughly equivalent on both sides at the present time. And while rightwing bile may be comparable in its intensity, it's of a different nature and would require a longer article to characterize. Since my purpose here it to respond briefly to my friend and brother-in-law, I'm going to focus on why I think it is that our liberals are in such a lather.

Much of it in my judgment stems from the unrealistically high hopes they had when President Obama assumed office at the beginning of 2009. Having spent much of eight years demonizing George Bush and his congressional supporters as the source of all economic and political failure, Democrats were handed what appeared to be a great opportunity when the financial system, along with the general economy, imploded with these rightwing types seemingly in charge of everything. As normal in the aftermath of such a fiasco, incumbents were swept out of power everywhere and the opposition swept in. Democrats indisputably had a mandate.

Barak Obama, in addition to being the first Afro-American president in the nation's history, was an intelligent and highly articulate champion of enlightened big government, for generations the central totem of liberal politics in America. Liberals expected great things. Backing Obama up would be the Democratic legislators who now had taken control of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Together the new president and his allies would re-populate the administrative and regulatory agencies of our government, so thoroughly ravaged during the Bush years. They would follow the infallible Keynesian playbook and pull the right levers to "get the economy moving" again. They would leave behind the amateurism, or alternatively the malicious greed, of the free-market enthusiasts who had been allowed to do so much damage under Bush.

Of course, certain veteran Democrats suspected the political trap they were setting for themselves and tried to warn that so much work would take time. However, nearly all appeared to be highly optimistic and to believe that the nation was now on the road to a stable prosperity, one to be fairly distributed and administered by wise government stewards. Righteous soldiers were marching into battle.

Unfortunately little that followed worked out in line with the script. The new governing alliance quickly attempted much of what they had promised, administering a massive fiscal stimulus to the economy, buttressed by the most accommodative monetary policy in our history. Such an overwhelming assault could hardly have failed, at least temporarily, to arrest the economic implosion that had been underway. Yet few of the underlying problems seemed to have been resolved, or even addressed in a sustainable way. The unemployment rate, the key touchstone of Keynesian economics, defied hopeful forecasts and stayed unnervingly high. The rate of economic growth, typically robust after so deep a recession, was anemic. A relapse into recession seemed not outside the realm of possibility. Furthermore, the cost of the stimulus package had been enormous and had been funded in the debt markets. Thus, the federal budget deficit, a chronic worry for much of the past generation in the U.S., soared to record levels with no workable option in sight for controlling it. Federal debt was compounding even as economic growth sputtered.

Motivated by the glamorous mythology long recalled of Franklin Roosevelt's first Hundred Days in office, exultant Democrats crammed even more work through Congress while they still had a monopoly on power. They passed massive legislative packages purporting to reform both the healthcare and banking systems. No one, of course, could make credible arguments against either of these efforts in the beginning. The American financial system had just come close to destroying itself and threatening he stability of the general economy. Healthcare in America, while already more expensive than anywhere else in the world, was grotesquely unfair to unemployed and underemployed Americans who had limited access to it. Something had to be done in both areas. Yet the bills ultimately signed into law by the President were dog's breakfasts that virtually no one in or out of government seemed fully to understand. The risk of unintended consequences was enormous, and yet there was limited confidence that the targeted problems were in fact being addressed.

Finding themselves with what looked like possibly a worsening mess on their hands after two years in power, the Democrats struggled for explanations. Everything they came up with boiled down essentially to variants on two arguments:

1) The depravity of Bush and his allies was far worse than anyone had imagined in the beginning. The problems created by incompetent, malicious or stupid (take your choice) Republicans were far too deep to be easily remedied. The damage was now going to take years, maybe even a full generation, to repair.

2) Democrats had refrained from fully wiping the Republicans off the political map when they had the opportunity. Now as a result, the surviving remnant was sabotaging everything Democrats, in their wisdom, were trying to do.

Most Democrats seemed to believe one or the other of these arguments. Many talked as though they somehow believed both. However, the party's experienced political hands fully understood that such excuses were not going to play well with the voting public. They, of course, did not, and the Democrats lost control of the House of Representative in the mid-term elections. If conditions don't improve, it's not out of the question that Obama, not long ago the heroic knight marching on Washington, might end his political career as a one-term president.

Having ridden such a rollercoaster over the past couple of years, it's not hard to see why liberal Democrats have become testy. For many of them, the only acceptable criticisms of President Obama are that he wasn't extreme enough in the solutions he tried to impose, or that he's been too polite in dealing with his opposition. Any suggestion that the ideology of modern liberalism is somehow at fault, and that it might no longer be up to the task of providing a governing framework in the United States, is anathema. Most Democrats don't want to contemplate it and are ready to fight anyone suggesting it.

I intend to follow this article up soon with another one describing how I see Conservatives as having arrived at parallel cul-de-sac in their thinking. This will attempt to explain why, like their liberal antagonists, Republicans are also acting so irresponsibly thin-skinned.

Then, if I get around to it, I hope to write a third article probing what I see as the deeper problems that none of our politicians are coming to grips with. These are the underlying issues currently escaping the shallow reaches of both conservative and liberal orthodoxies.

Of course, don't expect from me any practical solutions to the issues. Sitting here as a mere citizen, I have the luxury of not offering any, as does Keith. Hopefully, clarifying some issues may offer a bit of help. That's why we write. Eventually it's the politicians who have to do the work. That's why we elect them.