Normally I don’t like to devote much time to punditry about political tactics because a) it’s almost always just a tempest in a million teapots and b) I like to preserve my naivete that the quality of policy ideas matters at all. Also I’m far too masochistic to debate short term issues that resolve quickly and far prefer talking about long term structural issues that will take decades to resolve.
That said, the second I read Obama’s “non-defense discretionary freeze” I knew it was the biggest tactical miscalculation he’s made in his presidency. It really is the worst of all worlds: it doesn’t do anything to address our real structural deficit thereby allowing an attack from deficit hawks and increasing economists of all stripes, makes “Keynesian” [in quotes because that’s what they are proposing isn’t at all what Keynes would today] economists apoplectic over a minor issue and is another slap in the face to the large anti-military industrial complex wing of the Democratic party. I’m not sure I could come up with a worse policy suggestion if I sat down and tried. Even hopping on one leg and trying would only get me within spitting distance.
Of course it’s so bad that officials had to come out and add “caveats” which were destined to make the politics even worse. Even staunch Obama defenders like Salon’s Joan Walsh are berating it as a “deeply cynical” move that either is such a bad lie it insults the intelligence of voters or is bad policy. Glenn Greenwald quickly sums up what will be a growing anti-military spending narrative (and rightly so). Brad DeLong brands Obama with the “Hoover” tag. Krugman states, “And it’s a betrayal of everything Obama’s supporters thought they were working for.”
An Economist blog post states in part:
So perhaps this is all about politics? Well, maybe, but there are two enormous problems with that. One is that the campaign trail version of Barack Obama railed against John McCain’s proposal for a spending freeze, rightly, as using a hatchet where a scalpel was needed. It’s unlikely that Mr Obama’s political opponents will let him forget that. The other is that this is a complete betrayal of the political ideal Mr Obama seemed to espouse from the beginning of his political career—the rejection of the argument by the lowest common denominator in favour of a more reasoned and argued approach. This is yet another move toward the infantilisation of the electorate; whatever the gamesmanship behind the proposal, Mr Obama has apparently concluded that the electorate can’t be expected to handle anything like a real description of the tough decisions which must be made. I sympathise with Mr Obama’s position—would that American voters were patient enough to hear and consider a detailed policy discussion on a complex issue—but it’s unreasonable to expect that Americans can be hoodwinked into major policy shifts.
So there you go: a token concession that drives supporters mad and opens up the attack it’s not a real step, or a cynical message with no chance of follow through that will plaster Obama as untrustworthy. The worst of it is that I realized this was going to happen literally within 30 seconds of reading the details, as apparently did every other person with a blog.
Either it’s unimaginable incompetence or there is something far worse in the pipe coming along and this is to just get people riled up.