There's a great reading tonight at Powell's, with Thomas Frank, author of The Wrecking Crew, his book about conservatives in Washington, D.C. who have misgoverned to the point where the federal government is nearly in ruins (hello, privatizing and outsourcing to contractors!).
I had a great interview with Frank last week, and we talked about Sen. Barack Obama, the man who accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in two weeks. Could Obama turn the federal government ship around? Will he be a liberal president, in the tradition of JFK or FDR?
Mercury: Do you think it is likely Obama will be able to make a paradigm shift in D.C.? Are the conditions right?
TF: The public attitude is right. And he is the right guy. I don't know if he has that ambition though.
He talks about change, and if anybody could rebuild the federal government--which would require youth, energy, idealism--he is the guy that can bring that. I don't know whether he wants to do that or not. I don't know if that is what he has in mind. I sure hope so.
But look, the public opinion is there, people are so angry at the Bush administration, they are sick of conservatism. In my opinion, Obama's task is to give it the knockout blow. I hope he does, I would like to see it. But he hasn't done it yet, he has shown any inclination to do it yet. But I hope he does.
More about Frank's thoughts on Obama after the cut. And check him out tonight at Powell's on W Burnside at 7:30 pm!
Mercury: How would you characterize Obama? Would he be our next liberal president? [In his book, Frank says our last liberal president was John F. Kennedy--not Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.]
TF: Obama looks pretty good from my perspective. I like Obama. I voted for him in the primaries. He was my state senator when I lived in Chicago and I've always liked the guy and I hope he does the right thing when he gets into office.
I think he will be constrained, though. One of the ingenious aspects of this industry conservatism is they have come up with all of these ways of locking in their model for the state that it can't be reversed, so that it can't be changed back, the structural changes to the state.
One of these--there is a whole bunch of them and I go down the list in the book--but the one that is the scariest is the deficit. This is something that they discovered in the Reagan years. You run up this massive deficit. Democrats were always the ones that pioneered deficit spending. It was a tool that, when used responsibly, allows you to, say, recover from the Great Depression or fight WWII, things like that. When used responsibly, that is the key.
When used in an absolutely irresponsible spend-thrift manner deficits give you something very different. You de-fund government, you make it impossible for government to do certain things. So when Reagan ran up the deficit to the unprecedented levels, the effect of that, it turned out, it took certain political options off the table. And the man that found that out was poor Bill Clinton, who you might remember was elected in 1992 and was promising all sorts of traditional liberal programs. We were going to have national healthcare and he was going to do all this infrastructure stuff, it was going to be a lot of public spending on this and that and it was going to be great.
But before he was inaugurated he had a meeting with his economic team, and they told him that because of the enormous deficit he was inheriting he wasn't going to be able to do any of those things. The number one priority for him, if he didn't want a Great Depression again, was to get the budget back to surplus.
It's a famous story: Clinton erupted. He had one of his tantrums, with a lot of expletives and stuff like that. He did bring the budget back to surplus, and he didn't get to do any of the liberal programs he wanted to do.
After you have that historical precedent--Reagan's deficit prevented Clinton from being a liberal--of course, Bush gets in and right way, bam, rides the deficit right back up. And we are just finding out in the last few days that the deficit is going to be much larger than anyone thought. It constrains Obama. It takes choices off the table.