In the Arena

Election Road Trip, Day 9: Bye, Pink

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Joe Klein and Republican strategist and commentator Jim Pinkerton in Madison, Wisconsin. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

Arlington Heights, Ill

Event: Dropping Jim Pinkerton off at the train

Gotta say, it’s always an adventure to spend 24-hours with Jim Pinkerton. I’ve known him for 23 years now and he has one of the least predictable, and best, minds in the political universe. When I first met him, he was a realistic libertarian: “Even the most conservative President in recent American history, Ronald Reagan, couldn’t put a dent in the welfare state,” he would say. “So the issue becomes, how do we make it work better?” Jim was working for George H.W. Bush at the time, who was not exactly, well, interested, in Jim’s ideas…but Elaine Kamarck, who would run Reinventing Government for Al Gore and now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was very interested and so were more than a few of our friends and acquaintances (including the now-disgraced Newt Gingrich, by the way). The conversations we had twenty years ago, under the aegis of The New Paradigm Society, a monthly bipartisan dinner group, were memorable–and predicted Bill Clinton’s very successful welfare reform, charter schools and, yes, parts of the Obama health care plan (Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation had just released a universal health care plan with an individual mandate).

Iraq war veteran Raymond Hubbard and Republican strategist and commentator Jim Pinkerton in Sharon, Wisconsin. Photograph by Peter van Agtmael - Magnum for TIME

But Pinkerton is in an entirely different place now, one not easily described by the usual left-right axis. He describes himself as a neo-Hamiltonian, having rediscovered Alexander Hamilton’s industrial policy of the 1790s. Hamilton believed the only way to stave off an attempt by Britain to recapture its colonies was to act forcefully to build the industries necessary to win a war–industries Britain had tried to restrict in the colonies (since it wanted America as a breadbasket…and wanted to be able to sell its manufactured products here without local competition). Pinkerton seems to be in mid-journey, in the process of trying to figure out the implications of such policies today, but he was adamant about rebuilding this country’s industrial base. “Can you really guarantee we won’t go to war with China in the next fifty years?” he said. “Do we really want to have all our computers being built there?” (And I’d add, in an unusual lope into paranoia for me, do we really know exactly what the Chinese are building into them?)

The implications of this sort of thinking are enormous.

Tariffs? New build-it-here requirements for corporations, if they want to keep their American charters? It’ll be interesting to see where Pinkerton comes out. Two other positions he discussed: He loathes the Pete Peterson school of entitlement austerity and emphasis on the budget deficit. This is a moment to be spending, wisely, on the next economy. “And so what if we’re spending 30% of GDP on health care, if we have the money to do it?” he says. “The more advanced economies always spend more on health care.” Also, in a bow to his libertarian background, he was vehement on the role of trial lawyers in causing drug companies to be unadventurous when it comes to trying out new drugs. “The best way to reduce the cost of health care is cures,” he says. “All the think tanks are fixated on how to finance health care and none of them are thinking about the regulatory/litigious regime that’s making the search for cures so much more difficult.”

I’m not sure how much, if any, of this I agree with; a day with Pinkerton requires an intellectual cooling off period, lots of reading, consultation and thinking. So I’ll read up on Hamilton–and Henry Clay–and start trying to see this country through the Pinkerton lens, as well as my own.

Which leads me to a quick response to the Swampland commenters: exhale. Stop being so quick to reject points of view other than your own. The vast harrumphs from liberal readers about the woman who ran a non-union shop in Pennsylvania and the gentleman, two posts down, who was outraged that an apparently fit gym rat was on disability–you guys need to slow it down, think before you react. When I give a fellow like Mark Kirkwood space to express his view of the world, you have to acknowledge that this is how he sees it (without nit-picking about the price of buffalo meat) as his point of view–and that it’s view shared by a large number of Americans based on their personal experiences and stories they’ve been told by friends. I didn’t invent Mark Kirkwood; I’m just reporting–and by the way, he seemed an eminently sane, responsible member of our society to me.

Those of us who believe in programs like disability payments–or Head Start–need to think about how they can be run better; in fact, it’s up to us to figure out how to plug the inevitable leaks, how to increase oversight and keep on reinventing them in ways that reflect new technologies. (This tiny lecture goes in spades, by the way, for the truly loathsome Swampland squawkers on the right who can’t seem to bestir themselves to make an actual argument and who engage in constant ad hominem attacks on those  who disagree with them.)

In any case, it was great to see Pinkerton. It was great to see Russ Feingold. And now, I have to meet with a Congressional candidate who’s working a mall in the Chicago suburbs…

This post is part of my Election Road Trip 2010 project. To track my location across the country, and read all my road trip posts, click here.