Cook's Spoiled Stew

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JONATHAN CHAIT JANUARY 15, 2010

Cook's Spoiled Stew

The great Congressional horse race-picker Charlie Cook says President Obama should have paid more attention to the economy:

Honorable and intelligent people can disagree over the substance and details of what President Obama and congressional Democrats are trying to do on health care reform and climate change. But nearly a year after Obama's inauguration, judging by where the Democrats stand today, it's clear that they have made a colossal miscalculation.

The latest unemployment and housing numbers underscore the folly of their decision to pay so much attention to health care and climate change instead of focusing on the economy "like a laser beam," as President Clinton pledged to do during his 1992 campaign.

I see a couple massive flaws with this argument. First, Cook is correct that Obama could have freed more legislative time if he had ignored the health care and climate crises, but does not propose what Obama could have done with that time. After all, he passed his plan to rescue the financial industry. He passed a stimulus. The stimulus was far too small, but there's no evidence that devoting more time to the topic would have increased the willingness of moderate Senate Democrats to spend more on a stimulus.

There may well be some potential enactable economic legislation that Obama missed the chance to propose due to health care. But isn't it strange that Cook fails to mention a single example?

Second, Cook seems to take for granted the premise that maximizing popularity and preserving as many Congressional seats as possible ought to be the sole goal of a political party. But even if Cook was correct that the health care fight detracted from opportunities to shore up the short-term economy, isn't there something to be said for trying to solve enormous long-term problems? It is striking to encounter a mind in which the most cynical assumption of political behavior is so deeply ingrained that it cannot imagine an alternative.

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posted in: jonathan chait, charlie cook, clinton

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