Don’t know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I’ll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don’t pass on some impressions.The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year’s ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the “gotcha” instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court’s decision on the congressional “Partial-Birth Abortion” ban that didn’t mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he’d put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White’s status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they’d react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda’s responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs “retaliate” and “destroy,” satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren’t credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a “gotcha” question about America’s “three top allies,” and didn’t mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren’t impressed.Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, “Yes.” Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I’ve ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about “who won” shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying “nobody.” The main outliers here are HRC’s double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson’s pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson’s NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation.So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn’t work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.UPDATE 1: Richardson’s shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we’ll probably see some statement from Richardson’s campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State. UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our “three most important allies.” So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt’s comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel’s value to the U.S. Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly “gotcha” by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally. For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies–or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden–enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.
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By Ed Kilgore
All the talk of renewed inflation brought back some terrible memories for me, and I wrote about them at New York:
When I was a freshman college debater at Emory University in the fall of 1970, the national debate topic was not Vietnam, but the desirability of wage and price controls. Little did we know that just months ahead a Republican president would impose a wage-price freeze, long the anti-inflationary prescription of the left wing of the Democratic Party. But the surprise known in financial circles as the “Nixon shock,” nearly a half-century ago (on August 15, 1971) showed how pervasive the fear of inflation — running at just over 5 percent in 1970 — had become.
That’s ancient history now, even to those of us who remember the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s, and the particularly horrid scourge of “stagflation” (high inflation and unemployment simultaneously). Inflation seems to have been tamed by wise monetary policies. The periodic warnings from 21st-century conservatives that low interest rates and federal budget deficits would create inflation didn’t much bother me. It was like hearing an old priest chant a forgotten litany in a lost language — just one among many ritualistic arguments for the tight credit and reactionary social policies these people favored instinctively as a sort of class self-defense posture.The current surge in consumer prices doesn’t necessarily change that picture; the current post-pandemic (we hope) economic environment was sure to produce a spike in wages and prices that cannot be projected into a future where something approaching normalcy will surely return (though the real-estate bubble is indeed troubling). But now I am beginning to hear echoes of the inflation panics of the not-so-distant past, which make me tremble.
Like Tim Noah, I suspect there may be a generational lapse in understanding the politics of inflation:
“I don’t care to be condescended to by a bunch of Gen Xers and Millennials about my ’70s-bred fear of inflation. It feels too much like the condescension we Boomers directed toward Depression babies whenever they warned us that we were playing with fire in deregulating the financial markets. Poor dears, we thought, traumatized for life by the 1929 crash and one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
“The Depression babies turned out to be right, of course.”
Noah makes it clear he’s not arguing inflation per se is bad for the economy. It is, however, bad for progressive politics, and not just because “stagflation” probably killed the Carter presidency and ushered in the Reagan era far more than the Iranian hostage crisis or other better-remembered Democratic foibles. The deflationary economic strategies of the 1980s weren’t called “austerity,” but rather a corrective for undisciplined policies that fed wage and price spirals which in turned hammered the value of savings, the living standards of those on fixed incomes, and the political case for federal domestic spending.
Most lethally for progressivism, the conservative supply-side tax-cutting when combined with inflationary fears can create enormous pressure for public disinvestment and the shredding of safety nets (which is why reactionaries happily labeled the intended result “starving the beast”). We are still living with some of the long-term consequences of anti-inflationary backlash. As Noah points out, California’s Proposition 13 ballot initiative in 1978 and similar “tax revolts” were a by-product of price spirals that boosted tax assessments on property and income alike.
But sometimes lost in an examination of the right’s exploitation of inflation fears is the abiding fact that the left has no clear prescription for dealing with it, either, other than by denying its existence or significance (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly). Ironically, that was made most evident by the supposedly illiberal Richard Nixon’s surprising use of the great liberal instrument for taming inflation.
The veteran ex-conservative economic and political analyst Bruce Bartlett has penned an exceptional explainer on the background and consequences of the “Nixon shock,” particularly its international dimensions, and the role played by Treasury Secretary John Connally, who like his boss and ally Nixon was more focused on short-term politics than on long-term economic realities. What’s clear is that Nixon was convinced a recession induced by the Eisenhower administration and its Federal Reserve Board appointees designed to kill inflationary pressures also killed his 1960 presidential candidacy. As prices spiked in 1970, he was terrified the same thing could happen in 1972.
Nixon had inherited (and temporarily extended) an income-tax surcharge from LBJ that was designed to pay for the skyrocketing costs of the Vietnam War, but its effects were limited. So with his signature televised bombshell reveal (the one he deployed a month earlier to announce his trip to China), amid great secrecy, Nixon rolled out a combo platter of initiatives to fight inflation and international economic instability. They included a suspension of fixed currency exchange rates and the convertibility of the dollar to gold (to head off a raid on gold supplies triggered by a British demand for a major conversion); an import surcharge (to prevent a worsening of the trade balance); and most significantly for most Americans, a 90-day freeze on wages and prices to be followed by an indefinite period of controls by federal panels.
As political theater, Nixon’s speech announcing a “new economic policy” was, well, Nixonian. He began with dessert: an assortment of tax breaks and job-creation incentives balanced by mostly unspecified spending cuts; only then did he mention the wage-price freeze. After promising to “break the vicious circle of spiraling prices and costs,” Nixon moved on to his international proposals, which he downplayed as “very technical,” while assuring viewers that “if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.”
Nixon’s wage and price controls were initially very popular (as polls had told the White House they would be) and did indeed hold down inflation through the reelection year of 1972, when Nixon won his famous landslide reelection over poor George McGovern, in part by goosing federal appropriations to create a mini-boom. By then the administration had moved on to a more discretionary system for regulating wage and price increases, which generated rumors of employers currying favor with generous donations to CREEP (the Committee to Reelect the President), the notoriously corrupt operation heavily complicit in the Watergate scandals that brought down the Nixon presidency. Between the suppressed and eventually unleashed inflationary pressures and the oil-price shock Nixon’s international economic policies helped create, the country paid a very high economic price for the brief respite from inflation the wage-price freeze earned him. He sowed the wind with even greater inflation, and his successors Gerald Ford (whose feckless “Whip Inflation Now” campaign was widely mocked) and Jimmy Carter reaped the whirlwind.
Before you dismiss these events from 50 years ago as irrelevant, consider how much Nixon’s short-sighted approach sounds like something President Donald Trump might have done if inflation had became a political problem during his tenure (or in, God help us, a future term). Indeed, any president mulling Nixon’s choice of recession-inducing fiscal or monetary policies might be tempted to resort to the easy-to-understand, if dangerous, strategy of wage and price controls in which the pain is mostly back-loaded, particularly in or near an election year. Old folks remember how it preceded Nixon’s landslide 1972 win, followed by a decade of economic pain and multiple decades of political misery for progressives.