July 14, 2004

Jonathan Weisman Performs a Useful Service

Jonathan Weisman performs a useful service in writing about those volunteering their time for the Kerry campaign. On the economic policy side, Sarah Bianchi and Jason Furman ride herd on a large group eager to elect Kerry including George Akerlof and Lael Brainerd, Harry Holzer and David Cutler, Alan Auerbach and Ceci Rouse and Larry Katz. At the top of the economic policy tree are a Magnificent Seven: Bianchi, Roger Altman, Gene Sperling, Alan Blinder, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Bob Rubin, and Jason Furman (in the Yul Brynner role).

This is a list of names that has to give anyone who knows anything great confidence that Kerry policy will be highly competent.

By contrast, Weisman reports, on the Bush side:

[The] campaign policy shop is a no-frills affair. Policy director Tim Adams directs about a dozen experts who make sure the campaign is in sync with the vast executive branch that is formulating policy. Adams's group also analyzes Kerry's proposals and voting record. Fewer than a dozen outside task forces...

Tim Adams, you will remember, is the guy who when asked why he hadn't mentioned that a low unemployment claims number was the result of a change in the timing of the auto model year changeover, responded with, "We're not an economic-reporting firm, we're a campaign." It violates truth-in-labeling laws to call it a policy shop. And there is not a single economist on board the Bush campaign whom Adams thinks important enough to get Weisman to print his or her name. The Bush campaign has no--or next to no--real economists visible.

Indeed, the Bush administration has no--or next to no--real economic policymakers visible. As budget expert Stan Collender wrote for the National Journal:

Budget Battles (06/22/2004): Stephen Friedman... practically invisible since he took the job. Greg Mankiw... hasn't been heard from since he made a politically incorrect statement... about... outsourcing.... Joshua Bolten... one of the least visible OMB directors in decades. Treasury Secretary John Snow... hasn't said much... a cheerleader than as a policymaker.... House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles, R-Okla... the increasing likelihood that there won't be a budget resolution this year will force them first to defend what they... didn't do -- on the budget.... All of this presents the White House with a huge problem: Less than five months before the election, no one within or even near the administration has the standing or credibility to defend and promote the Bush budget and economic records other than the president himself...

People who in a normal year would be bending over backwards to find a silver lining in administration economic policies and would be forceful advocates of a Republican point of view are quiet, or are in some cases out there lobbing grenades, as Bruce Bartlett does when he compares the policies that resulted from Clinton's wrestles with the Democratic and then the Republican congresses with Bush's policies:

Politics in a rearview mirror - The Washington Times: Commentary - July 12, 2004: I simply recited the facts. The budget went from deficit to surplus on Mr. Clinton's watch, and lower spending played a key role. He even abolished an entitlement program through welfare reform. By contrast, the deficit has exploded under Mr. Bush, in part because spending has risen well above what can reasonably be justified by the recession, Iraq and homeland security. And he is the first Republican president in history to create a new entitlement program (for prescription drugs).

Furthermore, Mr. Clinton was a far more committed free trader than Mr. Bush has been. Perhaps Mr. Clinton was only interested in sucking up to multinational corporations to get campaign contributions, rather than actually achieving free trade. I don't care. He rammed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress — at considerable political cost to himself — while Mr. Bush imposed steel tariffs, raised agriculture subsidies, and in the process torpedoed the Doha Round of trade negotiations. It is a rare week when the Bush administration doesn't promulgate some new antitrade measure — usually against China — under the guise of "dumping," "fair trade" or some other protectionist euphemism.

     I tried to make clear I thought Clinton's "success" was due more to gridlock than good intentions.... But on the other hand, I think Mr. Clinton deserves credit for recognizing the winds had changed and adapting appropriately.... Where Mr. Clinton ultimately failed economically... was... what he didn't do.... [H]e chose to sit on [surpluses] rather than use them to fundamentally restructure Social Security.... [A] historic opportunity was lost due to a tawdry indiscretion. Future generations will suffer as a result.

When George W. Bush took office, he chose to focus on tax cuts and has put off all serious discussion of Social Security reform. I persuaded myself this was justified because tax reform was equally important and because some elements of the Bush tax program did lead modestly in the right direction. But much of the 2001-2003 tax cuts was wasted on worthless giveaways that did nothing either to improve the tax system or stimulate growth.


Nevertheless, like most conservatives, I figured a bad tax cut was better than no tax cut. At least it kept politicians from spending the money. What I never imagined is they would spend it anyway, without any thought of fiscal responsibility. The orgy of spending, culminating in a massive, unfunded expansion of Medicare for prescription drugs, was the last straw. At this point I realized any hope of controlling spending by cutting taxes was a pipe dream....

The stunning contrast between the enthusiasm with which economists--lots of economists--lots of very good economists--are donating their time to Kerry and the extraordinary silence on the Bush side is, to my way of thinking, the most interesting thing that emerges from Weisman's article. So, of course, it is not something he talks about. Weisman seems to think that there is something wrong with having lots of very smart and industrious people wanting to work for you for free: his lead paragraph closes by talking about how Kerry is finding it "difficult to manage" an "increasingly unwieldy policy apparatus."

Bruce Bartlett protests that his and his peers' lack of enthusiasm for Bush doesn't mean that they will vote for John Kerry:

It would be a mistake to assume from this any conservatives will suddenly vote for John Kerry just because Mr. Clinton looks better in the rearview mirror. They might if he ran as Mr. Clinton's clone. But to paraphrase Lloyd Bensten, I know Bill Clinton and John Kerry is no Bill Clinton.

John Kerry is not Bill Clinton, but John Kerry's economic policies could still be very good for America. It will be our job--Sarah Bianchi's and Jason Furman's, George Akerlof's and Lael Brainerd's, Harry Holzer's and David Cutler's, Alan Auerbach's and Ceci Rouse's, Larry Katz's and Roger Altman's, Gene Sperling's and Alan Blinder's, Laura D'Andrea Tyson's and Bob Rubin's, and mine and all the rest of our's--to help him make it so. Who will George W. Bush have to help him? Tim Adams? John Snow?

Posted by DeLong at July 14, 2004 12:55 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Whenever i try and take a census of actual, honest conservatives, i always start with Bruce Bartlett.

Jonathan Weisman only belongs in a census of typical hack journalists who don't - or can't - or are structurally impeded from - understanding what it is they are writing about....

Posted by: howard on July 14, 2004 01:01 PM


The response to the comment that Kerry may not be Clinton is that Kerry is not running against Clinton. The choice is not between Kerry and Clinton, it is between Kerry & Bush and anyone should win that contest..

Posted by: spencer on July 14, 2004 01:17 PM



Posted by: Adrian Spidle on July 14, 2004 01:17 PM


Alan Blinder is very good. Glad to hear he's advising Kerry.

Posted by: Mitch Schindler on July 14, 2004 01:21 PM


I do believe that Kerry would help himself by making fiscal responsibility the key message of his campaign. I say this as a Republican, because I believe that my side has gotten off on the wrong track and because I believe competition is good in the political arena as well as in the economy.

The problem is that Kerry has yet to throw the smallest bone to the fiscal responsibility crowd. Brad is willing to take him on faith because he trusts his advisers. I won't, nor will most middle of the roaders. They need to see something tangible on the table.

I don't say this because I am trying to trick Kerry into putting forward some politically damaging deficit reduction plan before November. I think my record of honesty in this area, which Brad has cited, should give me the benefit of a doubt.

I really think Kerry would win easily if he were to do a "Sister Souljah" (or whatever her name was) and say forthrightly that after consulting with his advisers (Rubin et al.) that he has reluctantly come to the conclusion that his first order of business, as president, will have to be to put forward a deficit reduction plan and that all his spending plans must be put on hold temporarily.

He could even go so far as to say that the prescription drug bill needs to be repealed while an entirely new bill is drafted. Democrats in Congress are already working on something similar. I bet that even the elderly, whose votes the Republicans thought they were buying, will support the idea overwhelmingly. Believe me, a lot of Republicans will support him, too.

If Kerry continues the path he is on of offering nothing of substance to fiscal conservatives, he will lose, in my opinion. And even if he wins, he will still have to do a major deficit reduction anyway. Better to be able to say that he has the support of the people.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on July 14, 2004 01:21 PM


It's amazing to think of how much brainpower is behind the Kerry-Edwards Campaign's policy team. First and foremost, the team certainly isn't incompetent. Yet, the real benefit may come from the public relations side: each time the press mentions Blinder, Rubin, Brainerd, and so on and so forth, it's likely that it will be followed by something like, "former Clinton administration..." If that conjues up images of the Clinton-era prosperity, it could force the voters to compare those eight years to the last four. And what a comparison it would be!

But getting back to the policy side of things, it's nice to know that the campaign seems to be filled with moderately liberal/Democratic economists and policy advisors. Not that my vote is any more important than someone else's, but I'm much more enthusiastic about the ticket when I think that he's more like Bill Clinton and a lot less like Dennis Kucinich (with no real anger directed toward the little alien man).

Posted by: Brian on July 14, 2004 01:29 PM


The problem is that Kerry cannot run on fiscal responsibility. He has already promised too much additional spending and is too tied into groups that historically clamour for more and more money. Look at his healthcare proposals, they will dwarf the current drug benefit in cost. He has proposed restoring the tax on incomes above $200k but that won't even begin to cover the increased spending. Plus it is very likely that the next presidential term will require whoever is in office to seriously address SSN and Medicare. So I guess my point is that for all of the accusations of Bush lying, Kerry would be in the same situation if he ran on fiscal constraint because he wouldn't be able to do it and keep his backers happy.

Posted by: wtf on July 14, 2004 01:35 PM


Mr. Bartlett-

But Kerry has already shown good faith by scaling back some of his spending proposals. And no doubt he will "discover" greater fiscal problems upon assuming office.

In any case, how many fiscal conservatives do you think there are out in the real world?

Given what we know about who will be deciding this election - around 2 million uninformed weirdos in certain swing counties in certain swing states - how can a grand geste of fiscal responsibility sway these people.

Posted by: praktike on July 14, 2004 01:36 PM


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"The stunning contrast between the enthusiasm with which economists--lots of economists--lots of very good economists--are donating their time to Kerry and the extraordinary silence on the Bush side is, to my way of thinking, the most interesting thing that emerges from Weisman's article."

Who can blame them? Why try to defend the indefensible? A president who panders to the Religious Right while spending money as if it were going out of style isn't one who is ever going to appeal to those of the libertarian persuasion. Even those who are concerned primarily with the "War on Terrorism" ought to be concerned about Bush's utter lack of financial discipline, as military strength ultimately rests on economic strength, which deficits of the sort Bush seems intent on running will ultimately work to undermine.

I've reached a point where I'd say I'm leaning slightly towards supporting John Kerry in November. Other than making the sorts of kowtows to "consulting with allies" that are calculated to please the pacifist left, he seems to be saying the right things where foreign policy is concerned. I don't see that he's going to be able to do all that much harm on the domestic budgetary front, even if he's of a mind to reject expert advice: I don't doubt that the Republicans in the House and Senate will rediscover the virtues of balanced budgets once a President of the opposite party is in the White House.

The only thing about Kerry that really worries me now is that I don't know all that much about his stance on trade, and what little I do know from the primaries is rather disturbing. If he would come out unreservedly as a free-trader in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, there's little doubt that he'd now be my preferred choice in November.

NB - For all those liberals on here who are inclined to gloat, my drift towards Kerry has come about *despite* the incessant hectoring of the likes of Paul Krugman and Michael Moore rather than *because* of it, and truth be told, every time I hear yet another shrill lefty equate Bush with Hitler, call him a moron, or accuse him of having taken America to war with Saddam for venal reasons, I find myself struggling with the urge to back Bush purely out of spite. I imagine that similar thoughts are commonplace amongst those who are wavering on their preferred choice of President.

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Posted by: Abiola Lapite on July 14, 2004 01:37 PM



I'm guessing that you have a typo and its Ceci Rouse (not Rice) that's on the team.

Posted by: lerxst on July 14, 2004 02:09 PM


every time I hear yet another shrill lefty equate Bush with Hitler, call him a moron, or accuse him of having taken America to war with Saddam for venal reasons, I find myself struggling with the urge...

Bush = Hitler.

Bush is a Moron. (capitalized for extra effect!)

Bush took us into Iraq because he has a small penis. (ok, I'm not even trying)

Hey, I love to see Abiola struggle! I'm not going to let him get comfortable now.

People like him got us into this mess with their holier-than-thou conservatism and smug know-it-all-ness. Although it is funny that such paragons of intellectual achievement got suckered by one of the biggest con-jobs of all time - the Republican Party. Karl Rove didn't even go to college, Lee Atwater had no great acedemic distinctions that I know of, but they played you guys like Minnesota Fats working over the local rubes.

So he's sure gotta suffer a bit more at the minimum, and I'm childish enough to actually feel that if, somehow Kerry does manage to make a dent in even a subset of The Dauphin's amazing list of disasters, I would be just as happy if you Johnny-come-latelies would not feel you had anything to do with it.

Give me the blue collar working-person votes, the people that Michael Moore truly understands and feels for, and I'll be happy. It will really make a difference for them.

Posted by: a different chris on July 14, 2004 02:20 PM


bruce bartlett, i couldn't agree more that kerry should call for repeal of the awful medicare drug entitlement.

wtf, whistle for a foul. In fact, Kerry's proposed tax-cut rollbacks and new health-care coverage are very close to an offset (close enough for the margin of error, given the kind of predictions that we are talking about) while they would simultaneously help reduce the rate at which health-care costs are increasing.

Posted by: howard on July 14, 2004 02:26 PM


the catastrophic plan is a good nose-of-the-camel policy initiative wrt single-payer.

Posted by: Troy on July 14, 2004 02:42 PM


I agree that fiscal responsibility is a key issue. I think that the problem is that the only way to reach a fiscally responsible outcome in the current economy is to raise taxes, by a significant amount, preferably in conjunction with some reforms, and some hacking away at the freebies lavished on corporations and the wealthy.

I wonder how much of a tax increase Mr. Bartlett is willing to support as the price of fiscal sanity? If he will not support serious tax change and increase, what does programs does he propose that Kerry should offer to cut as the price of his vote, remembering what happened to the last candidate who proposed financial sanity in an election year?

Perhaps it would be easier for Mr. Bartlett to answer this question: What combination of specific spending cuts, specific tax reforms, and specific tax increases should the Republicans have as their economic proposal at this point?

Posted by: masaccio on July 14, 2004 03:40 PM


I know Kerry has promised a lot of new spending. He has also said that all the revenue from repealing the Bush tax cut would be used to expand health insurance, not reduice the deficit. That is precisely why it would look so statesmanlike if he were simply to say that in light of new fiscal realities (he can use the midsession budget review numbers as a hook), some worthy and necessary goals simply have to be put on hold temporarily.

It's not as though his base is going to desert him. He may lose a few votes, but I think he will gain many more. On net, I think it is a winner.

In any case, he is going to have to abandon many of his spending plans anyway if he wins. At that point, those who supported him only for the benefits they thought they were going to get will rightly feel betrayed. Also, what leverage will he have to get Republicans (who will at least control the House) to give him what he wants? If he can say that this was an issue the American people voted on, I assure you it will make a lot of difference.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on July 14, 2004 03:44 PM


Yo, Brad:

I'm really surprised you didn't pick up on this.

Posted by: Gary Farber on July 14, 2004 03:44 PM


Now that I think about what I just wrote, I realize how angry I am over the vacuity of political discourse. Mr. Bartlett sees no reason to make any demand of the Republicans. Which part of being a Republican makes it impossible to insist that his perfectly legitimate financial concerns be addressed as the price of your vote? Is it the part about abortion, gay marriage, indifference to the environment, indifference to the opinions of mankind, reckless attitude towards use of the military, or just what?

I justify my support for Kerry to my friends all the time, and have no difficulty explaining my thought process. How would Bartlett justify his support for the incumbent?

Posted by: masaccio on July 14, 2004 03:51 PM


I don't know if this is the right place to put it - there's probably no right place, in fact - but this is as good a place as any.

Go to this link: http://www.obamaforillinois.com/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={40AFD188-F486-464C-8501-ED2EEEA1804B}&DE={3A0D0E49-AA18-43FE-815F-7F45D7A9CF50}

Now, tell me, does this guy strike you as a free-trader?

Posted by: Brian on July 14, 2004 04:15 PM


Very cool of Mr. Bartlett to come by and parley with evildoers like us. But as "statemanlike" as it would be for Kerry to embrace fiscal conservatism, I'm not sure how wise it is politically to allow the Republicans to be cast as the Santa Claus party and the Dems as the Scrooge party.

Now, if Kerry could run on fiscal conservatism while managing to foreclose the Santa Claus option for the GOP for the forseeable future, that might be a project politically worth pursuing.

Posted by: son volt on July 14, 2004 05:16 PM


a different chris wrote, "Hey, I love to see Abiola struggle! I'm not going to let him get comfortable now."

Well...sometimes Abiola is pretty reasonable, unlike someone like Mark Bahner.

Of course, it's too bad Abiola believes in (presumably) "royal" libertarianism, as opposed to a coherent variant (see http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/tma68/geo-faq.htm for a description of the latter...)

Posted by: liberal on July 14, 2004 06:09 PM


I'm afraid I find Mr. Bartlett's post internally inconsistent.

On the one hand he says:

Brad is willing to take him on faith (for fiscal responsibility) because he trusts his advisers. I won't, nor will most middle of the roaders. They need to see something tangible on the table.

But on the other:

even if he wins, he will still have to do a major deficit reduction anyway.

But, as he did not advance any other grounds for thinking that "he will have to do ... deficit reduction", he IS taking it on faith, or at least on currently available evidence.

I also don't think he could mean that ANYONE will do deficit reduction, because anyone includes Bush. And if Mr. Bartlett thought Bush would reduce the deficit after the election this whole issue would not arise; he could just calmly await the inevitable deficit reduction.

However, this

Also, what leverage will he have to get Republicans (who will at least control the House) to give him what he wants? If he can say that this was an issue the American people voted on, I assure you it will make a lot of difference.

seems to me perfectly reasonable.

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on July 15, 2004 06:34 AM


Bruce Bartlett writes, "He (Kerry) could even go so far as to say that the prescription drug bill needs to be repealed while an entirely new bill is drafted."

And then he could grow wings, and fly offstage.

If the former happens, I'll still be voting for Michael Badnarik, but I'll have a lot more respect for John Kerry than I have now.

If the latter happens...well, I'll still vote for Badnarik, but it will be an unforgettable moment...


Posted by: Mark Bahner on July 16, 2004 10:06 AM


"In any case, how many fiscal conservatives do you think there are out in the real world?"

I'm definitely one, and I feel like an endangered species.

I can't say more without getting upset: This election will NOT be about fiscal conservatism.

Posted by: Dragonchild on July 18, 2004 11:03 PM


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