So ridiculous was Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times Monday comparing Barack Obama to Richard Nixon and claiming that his supporters are sinking to depths of depravity in attacking Hillary that I had to reconsider his whole take on the Democratic primary.
"I won’t try for fake evenhandedness here: most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody," Krugman writes.
Apparently, he missed Clinton adviser Mark Penn's Hardball appearance in which he repeatedly raised Obama's cocaine use, as well as Bill Clinton's "fairy-tale" speech suggesting that Obama didn't really oppose the Iraq war.
To Krugman, it is the Obama campaign that is turning America into Nixonland, "the land of slander and scare, of the politics of hatred."
After a run of big losses in recent primaries, including an expected drubbing in today's Potomac Primary and unexpectedly large upsets in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington, and now Maine, the Clinton campaign is looking a little desperate, getting rid of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, and the politics are likely to get rougher. I seriously doubt it is the Obama campaign, enjoying huge turnout and an outpouring of positive energy, that is going to be tempted to go negative. But here's Krugman:
"I’m not the first to point out that the Obama campaign seems dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality. We’ve already had that from the Bush administration — remember Operation Flight Suit? We really don’t want to go there again."
Not only is Obama like Nixon, he is in danger of turning into George W. Bush. I can believe that there are supporters of the Obama campaign who are mean and nasty and really, really don't like Hillary. But Krugman doesn't name a single one. The "latest example" he refers to is MSNBC co-anchor and former Fox News reporter David Shuster and his heavily dissected suggestion that Hillary was "pimping" Chelsea Clinton by asking her to make calls to superdelegates--for which he was suspended after apologizing twice on the air.
Shuster was being a jerk and, as the Clinton campaign was quick to note, indulging in the same sexist, locker-room banter Chris Matthews lapses into when discussing Hillary. But I seriously doubt he is an Obama supporter, even with Mitt Romney out of the race.
More likely, Krugman is mad at his colleague Frank Rich, who wrote a column condemning the Clintons for playing the race card against Obama. Rich could probably be tagged as an Obama supporter. Certainly, he is no fan of Hillary, as his columns make clear. He described Hillary's Hallmark Channel town hall meeting as "a naked preview of how nastily the Clintons will fight, whatever the collateral damage to the Democratic Party." But the only sign of nastiness he turned up was that there were no African American questioners in the meeting--just an African American moderator. Not exactly Willie Horton.
More serious was Rich's charge that the Clinton campaign had been deliberately trying to stir up racial animus among Latinos by planting assertions--first by a campaign pollster in the New Yorker and then by the candidate herself on Meet the Press--that Latinos won't vote for an African American candidate. Obama is beginning to cut into Hillary's lead among Latino voters, rendering what Hillary calls a "historical" fact invalid.
Despite the heated charges of dueling New York Times columnist, there is still not that much difference, policywise, between the big Democratic contenders. The distinctions are more style than substance. Except for this: Obama is attracting so much grassroots enthusiasm that his supporters themselves--those nattering Nixonian nabobs Krugman refers to--are actually turning his campaign into a vehicle for progressive energy. That is what makes this campaign season so interesting.
As for policy, I felt compelled by Krugman's off-the-rails indictment of Obama's campaign to take a second look at his column on health care, which was, to date, the most compelling argument I've read for Hillary.
Right before Super Tuesday, he contrasted the two candidates' health care plans and came to the conclusion that Hillary's stands the best chance of getting us to universal health care. By arguing against the mandates in the Hillary plan, Obama is undermining the nation's chances of ever giving all citizens health insurance, Krugman wrote. Obama's plan will be more expensive, cover fewer people, and give the Right fodder for arguing against a truly universal plan.
Progressive economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker takes issue with that analysis. Baker doesn't argue with Krugman's central ideas that Obama is squandering a chance to get to universal health care, or that Hillary's "mandates" are necessary to cover everyone. Instead, he said both candidates could tinker with their programs to make sure there are no freeloaders to drive up costs and basically get to universal care. Neither campaign has specified what penalties people might pay for failing to enroll or for enrolling late, after they get sick.
So far as I can tell, on health care, Krugman's policy critique remains sound. But on primary politics generally he seems to have gone ‘round the bend.