In the Arena

Obama Rides The Wine Track

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Been on the road most of the day, heading to Iowa…but I just noticed Krugman’s column today. He makes several excellent points…and infers a surprising conclusion about Barack Obama’s positioning in the race.

First of all, Krugman is absolutely right that Obama’s health care plan is inferior because it doesn’t mandate coverage, as both Edwards and Clinton do. The Senator “offers” coverage to all–but that doesn’t address one of the big unseen problems of the current system: By most estimates, about 1/3 of the 47 million who don’t have health insurance are healthy, young people who can afford it and choose not to buy in. When they crash their skateboard into a truck and are trundled off to the emergency room, the rest of us pay for it. Their financial input is absolutely necessary to help pay for those older, poorer and sicker (as they themselves will eventually be). Both Edwards and Clinton require that everyone buys into the system, a major, courageous advance over other recent Democrat campaign plans–Bradley in 2000, Kerry in 2004. It’s not easy to say, “Eat Your Peas” especially to young people, especially in this country. But it’s the right thing to do. That Obama doesn’t is a real disappointment.

Krugman links Obama’s health care problem and his root-canal social security position–raise the cap on s.s. payroll taxes to get the wealthy to pay more. Edwards agrees with Obama on this…and it’s one of the most likely social security fixes to be adopted in the not-too-distant future. But Krugman, and other liberal economists, believe that social security is well down the list of priorities right now…that if we’re going to raise taxes, the proceeds should be applied to more immediate problems like health care and energy independence (although different economists have different ideas about the priorities). Clinton’s position is somewhat different: We’re going to have to deal with social security eventually and it will most likely be done through a bipartisan commission–as it was in 1983–in order to make both sides equally responsible for the pain…so why start negotiating now, in the middle of a campaign, before the Republicans have come to the table? Why hand the GOP more evidence of a tax-happy Democratic Party? (Clinton has already proposed higher taxes for health insurance and, in effect, for limiting carbon dioxide emissions.)

Taken together, Obama’s positions on both these issues indicate a Concord Coalition sort of political moderation that seems slightly out of date this year. The sort of candidates who have taken these positions in the past–Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, the pre-reborn Howard Dean–tried to win the Democratic nomination by appealing to more affluent voters. Months ago, Ron Brownstein wisely observed that Obama was traveling the wine track–and having a tougher time relating to the party’s beer-track base. These two positions seem to bear that out.

Ah, but Klein, you say, aren’t you a wine track moderate sort? Yep, guilty as charged…except for the wine part (I prefer grain.) And I still believe that bipartisanship is absolutely essential when it comes to national security and foreign policy. You can”t go to war, as Bush has learned, with half the country against you–at least, not successfully.

But I’ve always been in favor of universal health insurance via an individual mandate. Also, given the possibility of an economic downturn and the displacement caused by the transition to a global economy (and the concomitant growth of a selfish plutocracy that may threaten the cohesion of our democracy), I think there’s a real call for strengthening the social safety net, rebuilding it to meet the challenges of the global economy, in 2008. I suspect Obama believes this as well, and that he’s been lured into taking these positions, especially on social security, in order to create some policy differences with Clinton. Unfortunately, he’s created the wrong differences.