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Well, I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon (h/t Paul Krugman) what, unquestionably, gets my vote for this week’s must-read, and it’s Elizabeth Drew’s latest in the New York Review of Books, “What Were They Thinking?” When it comes to the current “bipartisan,” rightwing, economic zeitgeist in D.C., I doubt whether Democrats will find a more comprehensive answer to this question, anywhere.

IMHO, if you read nothing else for the balance of the weekend, I strongly urge you to read Ms. Drew’s extremely insightful and brilliant narrative. (Krugman, below, tells us it’s not yet available online, but I managed to dig up the proper links, just a few moments ago. The title of my diary is in quotes, since it’s the headline for Krugman’s post on Drew’s piece at his “Conscience of a Liberal” blog at the NYT. )

First, Krugman’s perspective on the piece, from just the past couple of hours…

President Pushover
Paul Krugman
New York Times Blog
July 24, 2011

The redoubtable Elizabeth Drew has a forthcoming article in the New York Review of Books — not yet online — that confirms all our worst fears. She tells us that past concessions have

established in both Democrats’ and Republicans’ minds the thought that Obama was a weak negotiator—a “pushover.” He was more widely seen among Democrats and other close observers as having a strategy of starting near where he thinks the Republicans are—at the fifty-yard line—and then moving closer to their position.

Even more alarming, however, is her window on what the White House is thinking:

It all goes back to the “shellacking” Obama took in the 2010 elections. The President’s political advisers studied the numbers and concluded that the voters wanted the government to spend less. This was an arguable interpretation. Nevertheless, the political advisers believed that elections are decided by middle-of-the-road independent voters, and this group became the target for determining the policies of the next two years.

…What a disaster.

Ms. Drew’s reportage is, quite simply, some of the very best journalism I’ve read in quite some time. The fact that she actually answers the question in her own headline, currently top-of-mind among so many Democrats these days, is nothing less than a testament to her skill.

Krugman provided us with his key excerpts. Here is Drew’s opening and closing commentary…

What Were They Thinking?
Elizabeth Drew
New York Review of Books

Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

Lawrence Summers, Obama’s recently resigned chief economic adviser, said on The Charlie Rose Show in July that he found it “dispiriting” that “all of the energy is on the projected deficits…when the problem right now is that the economy is in danger of stagnating from lack of demand.” The Republicans had made it clear for months that they would use the need to raise the debt ceiling as an instrument for extracting concessions from the Democratic President in the form of more cuts in federal programs. And the President assented to their premise, but only if there should also be some additional revenues. Were they all insane? That’s not a far-fetched question…

…In the end, the President had made the Republicans look bad, but what did he get for it? He ended up agreeing to new restrictions that will hamstring his policies for as long as he serves in office. His own actions will have led to new laws that forbid him to borrow money for any government policy—unless, at some time, he goes out and campaigns hard for raising taxes in any form. His actions so far shed light on how likely that is.

This country’s economy is beset with a number of new difficulties, among them that recovery from the last recession remains more elusive than was generally expected, while the US is confronting a variety of international economic instabilities, especially the large debts and possible default of several countries in the eurozone, bringing on unpopular austerity measures. Recent experience with what should have been a simple matter of raising the debt ceiling, normally done with no difficulty, is reason for deep unease about our political system’s ability to deal with such challenges.

Buried deep within Drew’s essay, we learn that, for all intents and purposes, what the President’s doing right now (according to David Plouffe) is getting re-elected. Period.

Rephrased as another question, and as I’ve read it in many comments in many posts in this community over the past few days, the public’s to the point where they’re now wondering aloud, “How much more must we lose for the President to win in 2012?”

8:35 PM PT: As is typical for Krugman, he carries over a blogging theme from the weekend into his column in the NY Times. In Monday’s edition, Krugman says “good riddance” to the apparent death of the administration’s “Grand Bargain” with the G.O.P.  Qualifying his commentary by noting he’s, “…no more eager than other rational people (a category that fails to include many Congressional Republicans) to see what happens if the debt limit isn’t raised,” he continues: “But what the president was offering to the G.O.P., especially on Medicare, was a very bad deal for America.”

Here are his closing words (note his reference to Elizabeth Drew in the second paragraph) to “Messing With Medicare.”


Messing With Medicare
Paul Krugman
New York Times
July 25, 2011

…So what’s the difference between means-testing Medicare and raising taxes? Well, the truly rich would prefer means-testing, since they would end up sacrificing no more than the merely well-off. But everyone else should prefer a tax-based solution.

So why is the president embracing these bad policy ideas? In a forthcoming article in The New York Review of Books, the veteran journalist Elizabeth Drew suggests that members of the White House political team saw the 2010 election as a referendum on government spending and that they believe that cutting spending is the way to win next year.

If so, I would respectfully suggest that they are out of their minds. Remember death panels? The G.O.P.’s most potent political weapon last year — the weapon that caused a large swing in the votes of older Americans — was the claim that Mr. Obama was cutting Medicare. Why give Republicans a chance to do it all over again?

Of course, it’s possible that the reason the president is offering to undermine Medicare is that he genuinely believes that this would be a good idea. And that possibility, I have to say, is what really scares me.

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