Cat Hats Forever?

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Economic & Fiscal Policy

by Thomas A. Firey


MAY 17, 2017 Bookmark and Share

The last 10 years haven’t been kind to Paul Krugman, the economist turned commentator who’s best known for his columns in the New York Times. Yes, he won the Nobel economics prize in 2008 for work he did a quarter-century ago on foreign trade.[1] But his commentary over the last decade has been a series of embarrassing wrong predictions and false claims.

For instance, he wrote in late 2008 that the incoming Obama administration could fix the American economy with a $600 billion fiscal stimulus.[2] Some $2.5 trillion in stimulus later,[3] the nation was grinding through a half-decade of economic stagnation.[4] In 2011 he devoted a column to the “huge policy success story” that is the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, saying it “offers important lessons for future health reform.”[5] Two years later almost to the day, the VA hospital scandal broke.[6] And of course, he’s repeatedly written that concerns about the fiscal health of Social Security are gross exaggerations if not outright lies, even as federal reports on the program’s woes have grown increasingly grim.[7]

Yet his biggest misfire may have been his April 13, 2009 column, “Tea Parties Forever,” in which he predicted the then-burgeoning tea party movement would be the undoing of the Republican Party. [8]

According to Krugman,

It turns out that the tea parties don’t represent a spontaneous outpouring of public sentiment. They’re AstroTurf (fake grass roots) events, manufactured by the usual suspects. … I’d say that it’s good for Democrats, at least in the short run...

When that column appeared, Democrats held the White House, a 17-seat majority in the U.S. Senate and a 78-seat majority in the House of Representatives. Today, Republicans hold the White House and both chambers of Congress. At the state level, 11 governorships and 31 legislative chambers have flipped to the GOP since 2009, giving the party unified control of 24 states and partial control of 18 more.[9] If that’s good for Democrats, one wonders what Krugman would consider bad.

The 2016 election may have been the most painful for Democrats. Yes, they picked up a few seats in the House and Senate. But Donald Trump—perhaps the worst major-party presidential candidate in American political history—defeated Hillary Clinton, arguably the Democratic Party’s most accomplished and centrist prospective candidate.

Since Trump’s victory, Democratic operatives and aligned groups have seized the mantle of “the Resistance,” fomented demonstrations and marches, and vowed to nominate candidates like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for national office. Their biggest show of force came the day after Trump’s inauguration, when hundreds of thousands of women rallied in Washington wearing pink hats shaped like cat heads (get it?). Thus the Democratic Party intends to woo the median voter in states like Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by moving to the political extreme. Clearly, the nation’s political center is someplace other than where Krugman and Democrats thought.

So far, the results of this strategy have been about what one would expect. Though the Trump administration’s first months have been a series of bumbles, backfires and bizarre behaviors, a recent Washington Post–ABC News Poll found that 67 percent of respondents said the Democratic Party is out of touch “with most people in the United States today”—more than Trump (58 percent) or the Republican Party (62 percent).[10] Apparently, not enough respondents believe the Democratic line that it is the party of the people—especially when that line follows wisecracks about how dumb, racist and deplorable many Americans are.

Problem is, the nation needs a serious and sober opposition party. Many people—including many conservatives and Republicans—are beginning to worry (if they weren’t already) that the extremely powerful modern presidency is now held by an incompetent, egomaniacal would-be autocrat who has little understanding of public policy, who is uninformed and uninterested in the nation’s political history, ideals and constitutional design, and who is wholly unmoored in moral or political principles. As a result, principled people across the political spectrum will increasingly want to constrain Trump’s political power.

The Democratic Party should be able to reestablish its political standing by becoming a legitimate, welcoming and trustworthy opposition party that Americans across the political spectrum can rally behind. But instead of doing that, the party is moving further to the political fringe, dismissing and antagonizing anyone who does not pass a far left wing litmus test. As a result, many prospective supporters who are disillusioned and worried about Trump will not join with Democrats, but instead will either reluctantly stick with Trump or else stay home on coming election days—just as many did last November.

Democrats’ rallies and Resistance talk are fun and exciting. But instead of cat hats forever, they should try being a grown-up opposition party. Or perhaps something else will come along to fill that role.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.

[1] The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. “The Prize in Economic Sciences 2008.” October 13, 2008.

[2] Paul Krugman. “Stimulus Math (Wonkish).” Conscience of a Liberal (blog). NewYorkTimes.com, Nov. 10, 2008.

[3] Thomas A. Firey. “$800 Billion Stimulus? I Wish.” Cato at Liberty (blog). Cato.com, Aug. 5, 2012.

[4] Thomas A. Firey. “Keynesians Adrift.Herald-Mail (Hagerstown, Md.), Feb 18, 2015.

[5] Paul Krugman. “Vouchers for Veterans.” New York Times, November 14, 2011.

[6] Tom Cohen. “Audit: More than 120,000 Veterans Waiting or Never Got Care.CNN.com, June 10, 2014.

[7] See Thomas A. Firey, “A Birthday Gift from Paul Krugman,” Cato at Liberty (blog), Cato.com, Aug. 20, 2010.

[8] Paul Krugman. “Tea Parties Forever.” New York Times, April 13, 2009.

[9] National Council of State Legislatures. “State Partisan Composition.” March 1, 2017.

[10] Washington Post–ABC News Poll, April 17–20, 2017.