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July 24, 2013 4:09 PM “New Ideas” And Old Conflicts

By Ed Kilgore

As predicted, the president’s Knox College speech did not include a lot of “new ideas” about how to improve the performance of the economy or the lives of Americans. It was more of a progress report on the implementation of the ideas he’s articulated in the past, with particular emphasis on the obstacles presented by congressional Republicans in the past, present and immediate future.

Now there are several different negative perceptions out there about Obama’s lack of “new ideas.” One, frequently discussed by MSM observers, simply assumes that novelty is a virtue in itself, or is owed to their own selves because they are bored about writing about the same old same old. Today’s Dana Milbank WaPo column is a good example of that rather empty and self-centered complaint.

Then there is the objection offered by conservatives, based on the presumption that “new ideas” mean their ideas. So the only way for Obama to come up with any “new ideas” on the economy is to surrender or at least offer to compromise (with the latter option being undermined by what has happened every time he’s done that in the past).

Still another negative perceptions is offered by some liberals: Obama—deliberately or out of political necessity—hasn’t presented any new ideas because he’s too busy hedging and compromising and worrying about marginal constituencies or Wall Street. Thought he’s sympathetic to Obama’s situation, Kevin Drum suggested this morning that if Obama wanted to shut up critics he’d advance some real “new ideas:”

Raise the minimum wage to $12! Split up the big banks, tax hedge funds at regular rates, stomp on derivatives and commodities trading, and increase capital requirements to 20 percent! Raise Social Security payments! Guarantee universal pre-K/childcare starting at three months! Invest a trillion dollars in infrastructure! Mandate four weeks of vacation for all employees! Eliminate software patents! Increase the capital gains tax to 40 percent!
None of this has the slightest chance of passage. But when you’re competing with a party whose message is about as subtle as a blood-and-guts slasher pic, you need something equally dramatic to show everyone what your party stands for. Dana Milbank still wouldn’t be happy, of course. He’d call you crazy. But that’s better than having him call you lifeless, isn’t it?

Brother Benen comes closer to my own view in arguing that “new ideas” are a bit beside the point when the old ideas haven’t been tested:

Imagine a guy goes to the doctor with an ailment and asks for a remedy. She gives the appropriate diagnosis that would make the guy better, but the patient and hospital administrators decide the solution to the problem is ideologically unsatisfying, so the prescription is ignored.
The guy’s condition doesn’t improve, so he goes back to the doctor, who again recommends the correct remedy, which is ignored once more.
As time elapses and there’s little improvement, the guy returns. The doctor reiterates her support for the appropriate solution, which has been endorsed by other medical professionals, and would work if tried. The patient replies, “It sounds to me like you’re fresh out of ideas and going into reruns.”

I’d refine Steve’s analogy by stipulating that the patients and administrators resisting “Dr. Obama’s” prescriptions have an entirely different mental framework for understanding illness and its causes.

On the economy, Obama’s premise is that middle-class prosperity and opportunity is both a crucial contributor to and the best measurement of economic success. From a conservative perception if any steps to improve the lot of middle-class families come at the expense of “job-creators,” they are by definition too expensive.

Obama considers economic inequality self-evidently a problem. Conservatives typically think it’s self-evidently the result of nature and markets (which are, of course, virtually the same thing).

Obama regards the public sector as potentially both a contributor and impediment to economic growth. Despite occasional lip-service to the need for a “positive governing agenda,” conservative economic “ideas” almost exclusively revolve around total or partial abandonment of public responsibilities.

“New ideas,” or even the much-desired “competition of ideas,” require agreement on the problems to be solved and the legitimate range of instruments that can be used to solve them. We don’t really have that in the “debate” over American economic policy right now. Maybe we will again at some point in the near future, and then it will be important that “new ideas” blossom in both parties. Right now, we’re still trying to decide which broad vision of the economy will guide our government, and in tying his own vision to the upcoming fiscal fights, Obama’s doing just what the doctor ordered.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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