Bitter Confrontation

BITTER CONFRONTATION….Paul Krugman has been criticizing Barack Obama pretty strongly in recent weeks for, in general, being too centrist, too accomodating, and too rosy-eyed about his ability to charm his opponents into compromise (see here, for example). Jon Alter disagrees:

Krugman calls Obama “naive” and an “anti-change candidate” because he favors bringing all of the players in the health care debate around a “big table” and rejects the populist message of John Edwards, who is apparently Krugman’s choice for president. “Anyone who thinks the next president can achieve real change without bitter confrontation is living in a fantasy world,” Krugman writes, endorsing Edwards’s view that the insurance and drug industries should be excluded from any talks on health care reform because they stand to lose profits.

The columnist and his candidate both believe that Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded by being a polarizing figure. I studied FDR for four years while writing a book about him, and this is simply untrue. It’s also untrue of other successful Democratic presidents and for a simple reason: “Bitter confrontation” simply doesn’t work in policy-making.

Alter goes on to make some interesting historical analogies, but I want to stop right here because it strikes me that he’s misinterpreting Krugman in an important way. Krugman — I think — isn’t actively recommending “bitter confrontation” as a policymaking tactic, he’s simply observing that any Democratic president had better expect sustained, dogged, and bitter confrontation from their opponents if he or she tries to implement serious healthcare reform.

Krugman’s fear seems to be that Obama is expecting that he can charm and negotiate his way out of this inevitable confrontation, and won’t be prepared when that turns out not to work. Edwards and Clinton, by contrast, since they harbor no illusions, will be willing to play hardball from day one. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be out on the hustings every day during their first term hurling populist invective at pharmaceutical companies and the insurance industry, but it does mean that, like FDR, they’ll be willing to use every lever of power they can think of, both public and private, to get their way.

Now, that may or may not be fair. Obama might very well know what to expect. Or Krugman might just be wrong about the reception he’ll get. But bitter confrontation is what Krugman is predicting, not what he’s yearning for. It’s an important difference.