Thursday, July 8, 2010

Oy, Bai

I've laid off the last couple of  times, but...:
In case you’ve been out of the country for the last 25 years and were afraid that nothing had stayed the same, here are some current events you may find comforting: Bon Jovi is touring. The Russians are spying on suburbia. And Democrats in Washington are squabbling over the direction of their party. 
That's Matt Bai, discussing internal questions among Democrats about...well, that's going to be the problem.  Bai is on solid ground in framing an article around Democratic in-fighting; hey, I'm all for the cliched quoting of Will Rogers, which he passes on in this piece.  Yes, Democrats disagree with each other.   But Bai tells us "you have to put aside for a moment the argument over Keynesian theory and look, instead, at the underlying breach in the party," which he calls a "the churning of a cultural fault line that has defined and destabilized Democratic politics pretty much since the onset of the Great Society."  Well...

Bai says: 25 years.  Is the fight now the same fight they were having in or around 1985?  No, it really isn't.  The fight the Democrats had in the 1980s didn't have much to do with the deficit (they all agreed on anti-deficit rhetoric in the face of the large Reagan deficits).  It had nothing to do with threats to Social Security, since after the Reagan-O'Neill deal Social Security reform was not a live issue.

Bai says: "since the onset of the Great Society."  That's just not true.  It's not even good pop history.  If we want to do that, we can think of a number of very different internal fights the Dems have had.  Let's see: back in the 1960s, there's the end of the fight between mainstream liberals allied with African Americans on the one hand, opposed by Southern conservatives allied with accommodationists.  That fight ended, basically, in 1965, and the losers eventually became Republicans.  Then there's a completely different fight in the Vietnam era between the remnants of the machine parties, the unions, and regular Democrats against antiwar groups, feminists, Black Power advocates, and others -- a fight that was bitter in part because the "old" politics folks had mostly been allies with the "new" politics people against the conservatives just a few years ago.  Later, and skipping past the Carter/Kennedy battle, we get to Bai's 25 years ago, and yet another cleavage.  This time, African Americans, other ethnic and "identity" groups (remember, I'm doing pop history here, so don't bother complaining about the labels), and the unions are on the same side -- and they're opposed by an alliance, more or less, between party moderates and "neoliberals" who thought that real liberal goals were betrayed by calcified interest group politics. 

Still with me?  During the Clinton administration, there are remnants of the 1980s battles, but there's also a serious economic battle between "serious" liberals who supported deficit cutting and reforms that involved creating incentives through markets, and an alliance between populists, unions, and left-wingers, who didn't care about deficits, didn't trust markets, and thought deregulation was dangerous. 

And then we have the Obama administration, which has its own set of alliances and factions and arguments.  As reported in the NYT by Jackie Calmes last week (via a terrific post by Matt Yglesias, which I recommend), the positions within the White House have flipped since the early 1990s, which the economic team that supported deficit cuts then supporting more stimulus now -- although outside the White House, some of the players are taking positions familiar from the 1990s.  In other words, it isn't at all the "churning" of the same "cultural fault line" that dates back to the 1960s.  It's a particular fight, with particular alliances, specific to the economic and political context of the moment.  Or, in other words, Bai should read his own newspaper.

Now, of course, there are some enduring regularities in American politics.  If  political positions fall along a single left-right dimension, and if polarization sorts politicians perfectly into parties, then in times of unified government you're going to see internal party tension between the moderates who cast deciding votes in Congress and the party mainstream.   That's not specific to the Democrats, however, and in fact the Democrats' tensions today are more similar to the GOP in 2002-2006, because all those conditions are met, than to the internal struggles of the Democrats in the 1980s or the 1960s, when those conditions were not met.  It also may be true (although I don't know that it is) that Democrats are inherently (for whatever reasons) less disposed to trust their elected officials than are Republicans.  Bai could tell a story about that, about liberals just not trusting Barack Obama on Social Security.  It may be true (again, I don't know if it is) that Democrats are more prone to internal divisions for other reasons, and Bai could have made that argument.  But to simply assert that today's Democratic squabbles are along a single cultural divide that goes back fifty years...well, that just isn't the case.

I won't go through the rest of the piece in detail, but I have to say one thing: if he's going to do Big Think pieces about the budget, Bai really needs a quick refresher on the issues at stake.  The hint is that he manages to do a full article about budget deficits without once mentioning taxes.  Indeed, Bai thoroughly conflates two separate issues: the size of the government, and the size of budget deficits.  Democrats for the last thirty years, at least, have been the party of smaller deficits (mostly by default, by comparison with huge-deficit Republicans), but mostly larger government.  There are fights about both of those, but they're not necessarily the same fight, because, again, the size of the deficit and the size of government are two separate things. 

I actually think Matt Bai has pretty good reporting skills.  When he gets out there and tries to learn what's going on somewhere, he's written some excellent pieces, and I've learned plenty from them.  He's always had a weakness for indulging Big Thoughts, however, and, well...he's just not very good at it.  And it's a shame that the Times has now placed him in a role that asks him to do that which he's weakest at. 


  1. One of the interesting facets of the splits within the Democratic Party in the 1960s was how cross-cutting they could be. For example, J. William Fulbright was, in 1965-66, the leading Vietnam dove in the Senate. But he was also a segregationist on racial issues and a moderate on other domestic matters. By contrast, Henry Jackson was not only hawkish on Vietnam, but such an intense skeptic of arms control so as to cause trouble for both Democratic and Republican administrations. At the same time, Jackson was a liberal stalwart on most domestic issues.

  2. Of course, there were splits within the Republican Party during this era as well. Think of the vast chasm on civil rights between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller (arguably a much more consistent racial liberal than JFK or LBJ) in the '64 nomination battle. At the '68 convention, John Lindsay was a serious possibility to be Nixon's VP. At the same time, one of Nixon's most important allies was Strom Thurmond, who kept Southern delegations from bolting for Reagan on the floor. Now, that's ideological diversity!

  3. Richard,

    Exactly right. I was thinking of adding, above, that Bai's claim that this was a divide going back to the 1960s is a little like saying that the defection of "Gang of 14" Republicans during the W. presidency is just like the Goldwater/Rockefeller and Taft/Dewey's correct in the sense that there are always fights within the GOP, but beyond that the players are so different that it's silly to call it similar.


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