The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Wolraich's picture

    Why Paul Krugman’s Wrong About Bernie Sanders

    Paul Krugman may be a terrific economist, but he should study his history. In a trenchant New York Times column titled “How Change Happens,” Dr. Krugman asserts that legislative change requires “hardheaded realism” and “accepting half loaves.” Dismissing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s uncompromising idealism as “happy dreams” and “destructive self-indulgence,” he asks rhetorically, “When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.”

    But F.D.R. offers a poor parallel to the political situation today. Democrats dominated Congress during his 12-year tenure with supermajorities that sometimes surpassed 75 percent. Krugman is correct that F.D.R. compromised some elements of his agenda, but he compromised from a position of strength, and most of his landmark New Deal proposals passed with large majorities.

    For a far better parallel, Krugman should have considered the other President Roosevelt. Many Americans remember Theodore Roosevelt as a fighter who forced his will on a recalcitrant Congress, but he was an extremely pragmatic president. “When any public man says that he ‘will never compromise under any conditions,’ ” he wrote in 1900, “he is certain to receive the applause of a few emotional people who do not think correctly… but some distance he must go if he expects to accomplish anything.”

    And compromise he did. In the early 1900s, two very powerful, very conservative Republicans, Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island and House Speaker Joseph Cannon of Indiana, ruled the Capitol. Even though T.R. hailed from the same party, they used their power to stifle his reform proposals in congressional committees. Unable to pass any legislation without their help, T.R. compromised from a position of weakness, allowing his proposals to be diluted to the point of inadequacy. “I love a brave man,” complained a disappointed Senate ally, “I love a fighter, and the President of the United States is both on occasion, but he can yield with as much alacrity as any man who ever went to battle.”

    Because of congressional obstruction, T.R.’s legislative legacy is sparse for such an iconic president. He achieved a few landmark bills, including the Antiquities Act, the Pure Food & Drug Act, and the Panama Canal Act, but compared to his colleagues on Mount Rushmore or his illustrious cousin, T.R.’s pragmatism did not achieve much serious change. He is remembered more for his executive actions, including anti-trust lawsuits and environmental conservation, which he pursued precisely because of his legislative impotence—just like President Obama.

    In my book, Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics, I contrast T.R.’s pragmatic approach with the uncompromising idealism of another progressive Republican, Senator Bob La Follette of Wisconsin. “Fighting Bob” was the Bernie Sanders of his day, a fierce ideologue prone to grandstanding filibusters and quixotic presidential campaigns. “In legislation no bread is often better than half a loaf,” he argued. “Half a loaf, as a rule, dulls the appetite, and destroys the keenness of interest in attaining the full loaf.”

    T.R. couldn’t stand him. “La Follette impressed me as a shifty self-seeker,” he wrote. “[H]is real motives seemed to be not to get something good and efficient done, but to make a personal reputation for himself by screaming for something he knew perfectly well could not be had.” After La Follette filibustered Aldrich’s pro-Wall Street banking bill for a record-breaking 18 hours, Roosevelt groused, “Congress is ending with a pointless and stupid filibuster by La Follette. It is sheer idiocy for the Senate to permit such silly rules as will allow this kind of filibuster.”

    But La Follette also had a strategy for creating political change. Recognizing that Congress would never pass substantive reforms under conservative control, he made it his mission to overthrow Senator Aldrich and Speaker Cannon and to create a truly progressive congress that would pass “not one or two mangled bills a session, but all the legislation we need.” His seemingly pointless filibusters, amendments, and presidential campaigns were carefully designed to publicize his ideas in order to nurture a national movement.

    Contrary to Paul Krugman’s blithe assertion that political grandstanding cannot “persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions,” La Follette’s strategy was extraordinarily effective. T.R. left office in 1908 and was succeeded by his friend William Taft, another pragmatic Republican who allowed Aldrich and Cannon to gut his reforms. While T.R. took an extended trip to Africa and Europe, La Follette and a small band of likeminded Republicans mounted a political insurgency against the leaders of their own party. Reform fever swept the country, toppling Aldrich and Cannon and filling the halls of the Capitol with politicians promising radical change. Today we remember this movement by the name La Follette gave it: the Progressive Movement.

    In the end, T.R. came round to La Follette’s way of thinking. When he returned from his travels, he found the country transformed. Absorbing the new ethos, he declared himself a progressive and ran for president in 1912, employing the kind of radical, uncompromising rhetoric that he had formerly decried. He muscled out La Follette’s campaign and challenged Taft for the Republican nomination. When the party establishment rebuffed him, T.R. bolted the convention and founded the National Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose” party.

    So successful was La Follette’s movement that Woodrow Wilson, formerly a conservative Democratic, also appropriated the progressive label and promoted an agenda of radical change. The three-man race between Wilson, T.R., and Taft was like a contest between Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Jeb Bush. Wilson won the presidency, and the conservatives were routed from Congress, finally achieving La Follette’s dream.

    The new congress was among the most legislatively productive in American history. Over the next eight years, a bipartisan progressive coalition established income taxes, labor laws, women’s suffrage, campaign finance reform, environmentalism, industrial regulation, the Federal Reserve, and other reforms that Paul Krugman holds dear. Like F.D.R., Woodrow Wilson did have to compromise some elements of his agenda, but he compromised from a position of strength and achieved the kind of radical overhaul of our institutions that Krugman calls “happy dreams.”

    Krugman is correct that as president, Bernie Sanders would get nowhere with the current Republican congress, but neither would Hillary Clinton. Just ask Barack Obama, who has spent the past five years getting nowhere with Congress despite repeated attempts to compromise. Bernie Sanders and his supporters do not deny this reality, but they do not accept the political status quo as permanent. By championing ambitious, undiluted reforms, they intend to galvanize a new Progressive Movement that will sweep the obstructionists from the Capitol. Then and only then will a progressive president be able to compromise from a position of strength to solve the nation’s pressing problems.

    And that, Dr. Krugman, is how change happens.

    Cross posted at History News Network



    However, Bernie (the Socialist) cannot be elected. And I say that as a socialist myself.

    He also has zero foreign policy vision, which is the area that the President has some independent power.  This is a big reason why I can't support him unless he is the Dem nominee, in which case I will.

    Bernie's electability is a valid concern. Bob La Follette wasn't electable either. But Krugman wasn't addressing electability. He was talking about how to achieve political change. On that question, I believe Bernie's got it exactly right.

    , Bernie (the Socialist) cannot be elected

    Are we sure?  I have heard cogent arguments that actually posit him as the more electable vs. HRC (if this is an "authenticity" election..).

    Of course we cannot be sure.  Bernie consistently polls better than Hillary against the Republicans.  There's a tremendous appetite for change in America.  Bernie represents change  as does Trump.  Hillary represents the status quo that has helped gut the middle-class.  Great article Michael!

    This is a comment I read elsewhere today and I think it is worth repeating:

    ~I watched Bernie Sanders' interview with Rachel Maddow. The one part that stands out is when he said, "Bernie Sanders cannot do it alone. People need to be involved. If they are not involved, Wall Street and the Big Banks will not change, they will continue with business as usual. We need to mobilize a force of millions and millions of people to get behind this." 

    My question is, when was the last time that millions and millions of people mobilized or stood up to support anything after their candidate was elected? The same people who see Sanders as the savior, are the same people in large part who elected Obama 2008. And then what happened? Just after he took office they didn't get everything they wanted immediately, no instant gratification. Then the Hue and Cry began, "Obama let us down. He hasn't done what he promised, he's even compromising with the GOP !" 

    The result being, they didn't even Vote in the 2010 mid-terms. Those same people sat on their butts, with their noses in their Smart Phones pissing and moaning, while the GOP took control in the 2010 mid-terms. The same thing happened in 2014. 

    I'm really curious how Bernie Sanders expects to mobilize Millions and Millions of People to help him, or get behind him, when they can't even be bothered to do something as simple as Voting for their own well being? 

    If Sanders were to win the 2016 General Election. It will be the same slump into apathy that follows every Presidential Election. The fervor will pass into complacency, and he won't get anything accomplished. "Mobilize Millions and Millions of People." I've never seen that happen, and I don't ever expect to see that happen. Ideology rarely becomes anything close to reality...~

    "Mobilize Millions and Millions of People." I've never seen that happen


    Bear in mind that Obama deliberately stood down his millions (Thanks, Rahm...)


    That said, I am haunted by the same doubts that you express, with the quibble that every time Hillary shouts  gives a speech it makes my skin crawl a little.  Can she not hire a voice coach?  Please?

    My daughter took horse riding lessons for years. I was always afraid of horses -- they are so much BIGGER than I am.  But I was determined to partner with her in grooming Pete (a big, sometimes moody Arabian) and trailering him (AGAINST his wishes), etc.  When I tried to cajole him into doing something I talked to him the same way as when I wanted my dog to do something or if I was going to give my kitty some tuna juice.  So imagine a high-pitched squeaky voice saying, "Come on Petie, get on into your stall," or "Give me your foot so I can get that mud out."

    No results, of course.

    Finally someone said, "Jan!  You have to use your BOY VOICE!"  So I did.  And it worked to some extent.

    That is what Hillary's voice sounds like to me...her BOY VOICE. We, however, are not horses.  I agree it is irritating as hell, and I think a voice coach should be on her staff permanently.  I think that when she talks loud to address a large crowd, or just to sound tough she would probably sound screechy if she didn't modulate her voice, but seriously, it is truly annoying and I LIKE her.  Those who are not nuts about her surely must flinch every time she does it.

    Has no one ever mentioned this to her?  Hard to believe. 

    Well, I wrote an epic column for you but I was not properly signed in and lost it!

    The gist: vote your hearts, my friends.  President Clinton or President Sanders will equally face a frothy, determined, enthusiastic and often dishonest opposition.  

    If you're choosing based on how the other side will react, you're losing.

    I'm sticking with my choice: Sanders gets my primary vote (even though I love Hillary, I think the country is better off with a strong Sanders showing) and I expect Hillary to win and look forward to voting for her in the general.

    I believe that all of you are too young to remember Adlai Stevenson.and. He was the Bernie Sanders of 1952. He was decimated by Eisenhower for being a leftist. The democrats had an electable alternative, but he was too conservative for the liberals.

    Many a liberal woman shed bitter tears after Adlai wnt down.


    I remember Adlai Stevenson.  He ran twice, also in 1956 against Ike. His electable alternative was some guy with a funny name and a southern accent and it wasn't Stromn Thurman.  I was 8 years old in 1956 and my Aunt Mary made us watch the whole convention. She explained who the Dixicrats were and what a "favorite son" was.  I never forgot that. That was back in the day when conventions were brokered. If the party bosses didn't like you, it didn't matter how many primaries you won, They would choose who they wanted.  That happened in 1952 because Truman wanted Stevenson. Nobody wanted to run against Ike in 1956 so Stevenson got it again. 

    Sanders does not have the support of the party, that belongs to Clinton. So I don't see any comparisons to the 1950's politics. I was diving under my desk on a regular bases for atomic bomb drills. Everyone was afraid of socialist. Stevenson did help to pave the way for later liberals.  I think he tried to run in 1960 but lost to JFK.  It was also the end of brokered conventions. He was just a little ahead of the times. He was also sent to the UN and played an important roll during the Cuban Missile Crises there. He died when I was in high school. 

    Ramona can probably weight into this a little better then me.  Stevenson was no rock star like Sanders.  Robert Kennedy was a political rock star that drew huge crowds. There was no more of that until Obama and now Sanders.  

    Thank you, Momoe.  Nice to see that recap of Stevenson's achievements.  You've made me miss him again!

    Many a liberal woman shed bitter tears after Adlai went down.

    I was one of them.  I was only 18 at the time and not able to vote yet (Voting age was 21), but I was rooting for him big time.  I disagree that he was too conservative for the liberals.  He wasn't too conservative, he was too intellectual.  He tried to fix that by going to the people, having his pic taken with holes in his shoes, etc., but he was a great orator and not the guy you wanted to have a beer with.  He would have made a great president.

    I think that is where my love for good oratory started. 

    I remember Stevenson. I have in my collections the "Stevenson Kefauver" banner which Al Lowenstein and I removed from the back of the convention hall in Chicago.

    We campaigned in upstate New York, where they called the VP nominee "Kee-hauffer".

    La Follette remained in his elected Senate seat as he fought for change, in spite of "quixotic presidental campaigns", correct? An office that doesn't face a time limitation, and lends itself to fighting more specific battles than the presidency ever can with a far more limited agenda.

    I'm curious about what Sanders has done in his Congressional career thus far that mirrors the momentous battle that La Follette waged.

    He made a speech against the Iraq invasion and then voted for it anyway. The mouse that roared.

    More importantly, there were several times that I wished a liberal Congressman or Senator would defy the rules and go up and say something truly outlandish and revolutionary and be dragged off the podium and out of the building. Despite my oft-stated pragmatism, I have an appreciation for well-done outrageous Punk Art, for the #OWS and exorcising the Pentagon and simply fighting villainy.

    Perhaps a re-visiting of lessons learned from TR, FDR & La Follette and Huey Long.... along with relevant timeframes.

    dragged off the podium


    Like this?



    Trayvon Martin On March 28, 2012, Rush addressed the House while wearing a hoodie in honor of Trayvon Martin, a teenager who was shot in Florida, and spoke against racial profiling.[31] As the House forbids its members from wearing hats, Rush was called out of order and escorted from the chamber.[32]

    Kinda, but I was thinking of war protest or funneling $2 trillion to banks or leaving abortion out of health care or dealing with police brutality towards blacks, not some display that has nothing to do with Congress.

    Yes. When you're right, you're right. But to play Roosevelt's Advocate for a moment, I would argue that the winning combination is an inside/outside game. Roosevelt doesn't get big changes without La Follette, et al, but neither would La Follette without Roosevelt.

    Let me switch examples to the Civil Rights Movement, which would never have worked if left in the hands of Kennedy and Johnson. Clearly activists like MLK had to demand major, "impractical" changes that JFK and LBJ would have said were off the table. The Civil Rights Movement changed the table setting.

    But then it took two Presidents of the United States, both of them highly pragmatic politicians, to finalize the deal.

    I agree with you Doc, which is why I drew a distinct between compromising from strength and compromising from weakness. The value of pragmatism depends on the context. Pragmatism didn't help TR very much because Congress was stacked against him. In that context, the best option was to employ uncompromising tactics to throw the bastards out.

    By contrast, Wilson, FDR, JFK, and LBJ had cooperative congresses. They had to cut deals, of course, but they didn't have to dilute their big bills. More often, they engaged in horse-trading on unrelated issues.

    So what's the context today? We have an extremely uncooperative Congress, so compromising from strength is not an option. Right now, we need a La Follette. In a few years, after Sanders' "political revolution" overhauls Congress, we could use a pragmatist again.

    Except that La Follette was essentially the pusher, the needler, and not the president.  The role I see Sanders fitting perfectly.

    Hard to say since LF never became president, but he was effective as governor of Wisconsin. His strategy was the same. He refused to compromise with the recalcitrant state legislature and spent four years attacking the obstructionists. For those four years, he accomplished nothing, but in the next election, Wisconsin voters finally delivered a progressive legislature, and LF's fifth year in office was incredibly productive. Wisconsin became a national pioneer of progressive legislation.

    Back to the present. Legislatively speaking, a Democratic president today is impotent as long as Congress is controlled by the right wing. I don't care of it's Hillary or Sanders or FDR. So saying that Hillary would be more effective at getting legislation than Sanders is a joke. No one is getting any legislation. The question is who would be better at sending home the clowns, and for that, I'd pick Sanders.

    Of course, the President has other responsibilities, and I'm not arguing that Sanders would be a better all around executive. But when it comes to legislation, the idea that Hillary will somehow compromise her way through Congress is a pipe dream. A pusher is the only hope.

    I don't know that you, Ramona or I are in disagreement. The difference may be simply how the difference is created; bit-by-bit or all at once. There are advantages to both, no doubt.

    I'm in the camp that says members of Congress have more power and ability to affect change than even they recognize. You've more than pointed that out with your history of La Follette. Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown and others within the progressive caucus are far beyond our usual suspects - Sanders can lead them. He hasn't yet, in any substantial way, but his presidential campaign might very well change that.

    I've never said anything about Hillary compromising her way through.  What I have said is that she knows where the skeletons are buried and she knows how to deal with these guys.  She knows their dirty tricks up one side and down the other, and she'll use her knowledge against them.  They know that and they'll do everything they can to stop her, but it won't be enough because they're already used up their quota of everything to stop her.  And she hasn't been stopped.

    Fabulous piece, Michael.

    Rereading Krugman's piece, I think he gives away his view on electability---Bernie hasn't faced the attack machine---which might be more operative than his "change" logic.

    In any case, I have fear of whether Sanders could survive the attack machine, and if not, we really lose, thinking of the Supremes and all. I know for myself that the worst outcome at my age would be a Republican victory. It may be cowardly, don't know---I'm for insurance, not rapid pace.

    Krugman has just reviewed a colleague's book--the period 1900-1970 cannot repeated vis a vis the sheer amount of change. Raises the question of Bernie's actual reforms. As i've heard Bernie's supporters I've become more conservative, not less.

    My point is, do we need such dramatic overhauls in our tribal outlook, our decaying infrastructure, our entire consumer way of life firstthe rogressive reforms might be putting the jelly on the sandwich first, when  we needed to start with the peanut butter.

    (a major keyboard issue)

    Sorry, culturally, infrastructure, world competition---do we have the society and base in place which would guarantee efficacy in reforms, when there are deep structural differences between now and then? Just spit balling, particularly when I see the blithe attitudes of Bernie's people---oh, just reform this and that. Has anyone calculated the economic changes involved in single payer---most of the people I see going to work in the morning are wearing scrubs.

    The policy prescriptions are coming too easily. I don't trust them.

    Thanks Oxy. As I mentioned above, electability is a separate issue. While I agree with Sanders' long-term strategy, I'm not sure that I'm willing to risk the White House on it, especially considering who the GOP might nominate.

    As for PB&J, the Democrats have been peddling peanut butter for a couple decades without much to show for it. They say, sorry, no jelly in stock but a PB sandwich is better than plain bread. The trouble is, PB sandwiches don't sell. Dems are losing customers to the jelly donut stand across the street. I'm not saying that we start baking jelly donuts, but we'll never get people to eat PB without some J to go with it. If we're out of J, we better find some more.

    Gotta run. Getting hungry.

    Great article Mike. If we are ever going to change directions we are going to have to start by changing directions. My preference is a turn to the left and your analysis adds to my level of hope that it can happen. This article is along somewhat the same line as yours and addresses some of the campaign rhetoric aimed at dismissing Sanders as an unrealistic idealist.  

    Thank you and thanks for the link. I don't share your suspicion of Sanders' opponents in the Democratic Party, however. The argument against Sanders' idealism may be flawed, but that does not make it a "Big Lie" concocted by cynical plutocrats. To dismiss those who disagree with you as liars or dupes is not only mistaken; it undermines your ability to persuade people. And there can no political revolution without persuasion.

    Fair enough. I expect some, or a lot, of hyperbole in political discourse so I often overlook it or do not even notice when it supports an argument I agree with. I should be more aware since I am offended every time I am called a "Hillary hater".  

    Mike - why aren't you suspicious when Democratic politicians like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel steer funds to for-profit charter schools, close public schools, and receive huge campaign contributions from the private school operators?  How about when Indiana Senator Evan Bayh refused to help include a public option in the ACA back in 2009?  At the time Bayh's wife sat on the Board of health insurer Well Point.  Bayh himself took in over $500K in 2008 from health insurers when he ran for reelection.  Does that raise suspicions in your mind?  For what it's worth the good people of Indiana indicated contemporaneously that they wanted a public option.

    Hi Genghis.  Remember me?

    I enjoyed the history lesson but don't think your analogy is apt.  La Follette didn't initiate change by running for President.  Rather, according to what you write (of which I was completely unaware - thanks for the history lesson), he managed to bring enough representatives to his side to overthrow the elected leadership.  Sanders has been banging the same drum for as long as I remember and has not managed to bring even a single major progressive leader to his side.  To the contrary, progressive elected officials are uniformly supporting Clinton.  Sanders has mostly galvanized the same voters who went for Bradley, Nader, Dean and Obama the last time around - young, liberal, predominantly white and looking for a transformative candidate.  Mostly, they show up every four years, and unreliably at that.  Even if you believe his nomination wouldn't risk a crushing defeat and downballot disaster that could set back his causes for decades, at the very least, he is putting the cart before the horse.  

    And as an aside, I don't agree with your assessment that Obama has gotten nowhere with Congress over the past five years despite repeated attempts to compromise.  I'd say that once he recognized that compromise was futile, he cut some pretty good deals and accomplished quite a bit through executive action.  In other words, he has governed as the president Clinton campaigned to be the last time around and will be when she is elected in November.  Not only can I live with that, I'd be thrilled, particularly given the alternatives.      

    One of Obama's best deals was the one he didn't make.  By his proposed "grand bargain", he was prepared to sacrifice future seniors on the altar of getting something done.  Fortunately, the RepubliCons wouldn't even give him that "victory".  I want a truly liberal President who refuses to do harmful things to the American people.

    Hey armchair, it's great to hear from you after all these years. Sorry that I missed this comment before. First off, I agree with you about Obama's executive actions. I mentioned in the post that TR did the same thing, using executive authority to prosecute trusts and conserve wilderness. But that isn't what Krugman was talking about. He was writing about compromising in order to achieve legislative change. And in that sense, neither TR nor Obama was very successful.

    Regarding La Follette, let me be clear. He brought together a fairly small faction of disaffected insurgents. They were nowhere close to a majority in the Republican caucus, but they deprived the GOP of its legislative majorities and brought down Speaker Cannon by voting with the Democrats. La Follette was always an outsider, however, and loathed by Republican establishment far more than the contemporary Democratic establishment dislikes Sanders.

    It's not a perfect parallel, of course, and I'm not suggesting that LF = Sanders. But their political strategy is the same: Instead of compromising on weak legislation, fight for the big idea to galvanize a political movement that overhauls Congress. So contrary to Krugman's claim that Sanders' strategy has never worked, it did work in the progressive era, far better than the conciliatory approach that Krugman recommends.

    Thank you and mazel tov on such a good site!

    I.m still trying to understand why Mike thinks Obama has gotten nowhere with Congress. BHO has signed 55 major pieces of legislation and treaties, only vetoing 9 and will sign more before he leaves office. Besides the insurance company bailout called Obamacare he made the Bush tax cuts permanent, dramatically expanded surveillance of his subjects and even cut SNAP. Even though the Tea Party denied him his Grand Betrayal he certainly has been effective working with the opposition.

    I have friends on both sides of the Bernie-Hillary divide. And tonight on Facebook, they're all posting articles that give the edge to their favored candidates, articles that anticipate alternative—and conflicting—futures. And that is as it should be.


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