"We hope we're about to elect FDR," New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman told me earlier this week, "but we might be about to elect Grover Cleveland." He said he was referring to the front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
Grover Cleveland, for those who don't know their 19th century presidents, was the only Democrat who made it to the White House between 1860 and 1912, the decades when Republican big money ruled the country. Cleveland, elected in 1885 and again in 1893, mobilized the army to crush the 1894 Pullman strike of railroad workers, and joined Wall Street in supporting the gold standard. "He was what they called a ‘Bourbon Democrat,' as in the French royal family," Krugman explained. "He wasn't that different from the Republicans at the time."
Krugman said it appears that the key issue in the 2008 election will be health care, and that the Democrats have a health care plan that will work. His "biggest concern," he said, was "whether the next occupant of the White House will triangulate it into oblivion." He reiterated that he was talking about Hillary.
Earlier that day, the New York Times had reported on page one that the health care industry has already contributed $2.7 million to Hillary, more than any other candidate in either party. Krugman indicated he was concerned that she might do too much compromising and negotiating with the insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital companies, as she did as First Lady in 1993.
Krugman pointed to one big difference between the Clintons' triangulation over health care in 1993 and the situation today, when "we have a self-conscious, aggressive progressive movement in a way we did not when Bill Clinton came into office. I think that does at least somewhat change the calculus," he said. If Hillary does concede too much to the other side, "there is an organized group that will make it clear that this is not what you're supposed to do."
On health care, Krugman said that, speaking as an economist -- which he is --the best plan would be a single payer system, like the "Medicare for All" bill introduced by John Conyers. That would have the lowest administrative overhead and thus provide the most cost-effective system. In his book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," he writes "America loves Medicare; let's give it to everyone." But politically that would be a struggle, because it would require a substantial tax increase.
Thus "the perfect can be the enemy of the good," Krugman says. The most politically feasible plan is the one proposed first by John Edwards and then by Barak Obama – a universal health care system run though private insurance companies. It mandates coverage for everybody and prohibits insurers from denying coverage to anyone or charging different premiums to different people, and it provides government subsidies for low-income people.
The main advantage is that it could be paid for without a tax increase, simply by reversing the Bush tax cuts for the rich. That's the one the Democrats will be pushing after the 2008 election, Krugman says, and that's the one Hillary must be prevented from triangulating into oblivion.
Krugman spoke with me at a public event, ALOUD at Central Library, a free series at the Los Angeles Public Library presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles.