The Radical-in-Chief Who Cuts Payroll Taxes

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Dec. 21 2010 4:17 PM

The Radical-in-Chief Who Cuts Payroll Taxes

I have a review of Stanley Kurtz's Radical-in-Chief up now . It's one of the worthier political biographies of the year. At the same time, its thesis -- that to understand Barack Obama's decisions, you must understand that he is trying to destroy capitalism -- is just not convincing. He's right that some important modern Democratic priorities were developed by socialists. It's really hard to deny this. I mostly degree about how meaningful this is, because our political consensus takes for granted a lot of things that are or were championed by democratic socialists. And I don't see the straight line between Obama agitating for community centers in the 1980s and the entire Democratic Party apparatus backing a temporary takeover/bailout of GM and Chrysler. The Labor movement is really more important in determining what Democrats do than socialist academics are.

Kurtz has a long response to the review that's worth reading. I disagree that I "mangled" his take on the financial crisis -- read the book, and you'll see that there are a lot of explanations of how the worst fears about ACORN et al could be true, followed by caveats on how, well, Kurtz isn't saying that they're true.


Jonah Goldberg responds , too.

Can Weigel (or some other sympathetic volunteer ) explain what exactly differentiates the goals, ambitions and/or philosophical drives of, say, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from European social democrats? Is there anything fundamental to social democracy that Nancy Pelosi (forget Obama for the moment) disagrees with because she is a liberal and not a "socialist"? Is there anything Nancy Pelosi believes about the role of the state that would cause the average Swedish or British social democrat to object?

Actually, I don't think much separates the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from, say, the leadership of the UK Labour Party. If Democrats want to spin this, that's because, like I wrote, "socialism" is a poisonous political term in this country, whereas it's not poisonous in Europe. It's a pretty boring feature of our politics that 1) Democrats claim to have nothing to do with socialist ideas and 2) Republicans think they're pulling a trump card when they call something socialistic. (If they want to do this, they should really dismantle Medicare and Medicaid. No replacing it with block grants to states. Dismantling or bust!)

So, that's what I liked about Kurtz's book. It's a good history of American socialism and community organizing. It's also a good history of stuff Obama read and people he interacted with in his 20s and early 30s, and explaining why his instincts about policy are wrong. (They were wrong in the same way Dave Obey's and Larry Summers's were wrong.). It's just not useful for understand why Barack Obama has governed the way he has. It's hard to explain his economic team, the priorities and size of the stimulus, the health care compromise that was eventually reached, the temporary auto bailout, the failure to nominate judges or Fed governors with alacrity, etc and etc and say "aha, Alinsky at work."

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



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