Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 February 2008

The Sizzle and the Steak

Who’s got the sizzle, and who’s got the steak?

The conventional wisdom is that Barack has the sizzle. He’s charismatic. He’s hopeful. He’s inspirational. As the Washington Post reported today, websites are starting to spoof him as the “Messiah.”

Hillary seems to have the steak. She’s the careful plodder, the Earth-bound candidate. With “my 35 years” behind her, she’s the safe and dependable one. Or so the conventional wisdom goes.

Call me curmudgeon and maverick, but I think it’s exactly the opposite.

Who’s the glibber debater? Hillary. Who can rattle off a list of her accomplishments—going back 35 years to her graduation from law school—at the drop of a hat?

Who gets those gleams from women seeing Hillary breaking their glass ceiling and bearing their heavy cross of gender discrimination? When you think about the soaring aspirations of victims of discrimination, remember two important statistics: African-Americans are 12% of our population; women are a majority. So who’s the “Messiah” for the most?

Now let’s look at the steak. Four very real problems appear at or near the top of every voter’s list: the mortgage/credit crisis, health care, the war in Iraq, and Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Let’s take them one by one.

1.  Mortgage/Credit Crisis. For the mortgage/credit crisis, Hillary prescribes a five-year interest-rate freeze, a form of price control. That’s a bold proposal. It seems to promise instant relief at her command.

There’s just one problem. As every economist of any repute has said—even Fortune Magazine—the freeze won’t work. It will have disastrous effects on the rest of the economy, causing non-frozen interest rates to skyrocket, and in a time of rising inflation at that. Like every price control throughout the last century, it will distort the free market and have unintended consequences.

Barack won’t mess with the free market. He promises to crack down hard on predatory lending to stop the foreclosure wave from getting bigger. He’ll subsidize folks facing foreclosure to keep them in their homes. And he’ll seek, like the current administration, private solutions to keep the markets functioning but give homeowners less dangerous loans. His solutions are pedestrian—even plodding—but they will work. And they won’t damage our complex credit economy.

2.  Health Care. Then there’s health care. Hillary wants to force everyone to buy health insurance, whether they can afford it or not. That’s another bold and commanding solution. But it’s another economic mandate. It will have severe unintended consequences. It will impose a regressive tax on young, healthy, blue collar workers and will create gratuitous and unnecessary opposition to health-care reform. And it will leave some poor people paying fines and still having no health insurance, as Massachusetts’ actual experience proved.

As for Hillary’s failed 1993 proposal, it failed in part because of mandates (then on small business) and in part because Hillary developed it behind closed doors, freezing out members of her own party. How cautious and careful was that? How cautious and careful is her promising to make the same mistakes a second time?

3.  War in Iraq. On Iraq, the record is clear. Hillary voted for our bold and commanding invasion. She did so without even reading the crucial intelligence report. Barack, although not in the Senate, spoke out against the invasion.

Here’s what Barack said five months before we invaded, about the same time Hillary voted for war:
    “I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda.”
Pretty cautious and plodding, right? And pretty good foresight.

4.  Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda in Pakistan is our single most serious foreign problem. We must defeat it before it acquires nuclear weapons—from North Korea, Pakistan, Russia’s loose nukes, or maybe even Iran.

Six months ago, Barack proposed a comprehensive plan to deal with that threat. Much of his plan involved pedestrian blocking and tackling. He had a six step plan to implement the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, which the Bushies have largely ignored. He proposed replacing the madrassas that train terrorists with real schools to give poor Muslims a future.

Those pedestrian proposals got little attention. What caught everyone’s ear was his suggestion that we stop coddling Musharraf and go after Al Qaeda, by ourselves if we have to. Since then, hasn’t every event on the ground in Pakistan—from Al Qaeda’s resurgence, through Bhutto’s assassination, to the Pakistani elections just held—proved him right?

Hillary ridiculed Barack’s proposal. But to my knowledge, she has never proposed or published a plan to defeat Al Qaeda as detailed and comprehensive as Barack’s. And she thinks that our policy toward Pakistan and Al Qaeda Central is something best dealt with in secret, by experts like herself, out of public view. Whose policies pose greater risk?

On the four greatest issues of our times, Barack has been right, prescient, cautious and practical. Hillary has been careless, risky, inventive and bold.

Barack’s boldest proposal was to go after bin Laden in Pakistan, but it was only a part of a much larger comprehensive plan. Hillary’s bold economic proposals flout well-established economic learning and threaten unintended consequences. And what could have been riskier than her vote to invade Iraq without reading the critical report, without letting arms inspectors finish their jobs, and without forcing Bush to continue displomacy?

So who’s got the sizzle, and who’s got the steak? There’s a clear answer, and it’s not the conventional wisdom.


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