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The Path to a New Movement

Krugman Takes On Conservatives in His New Book

Paul Krugman doesn’t think movement conservatives are completely evil.

“I don’t think most of the right-wingers are sitting in their private meetings and chortling at how they’ve managed to fool the American people,” the New York Times columnist said in an interview Monday.

But that doesn’t stop Krugman from delivering a searing indictment of them — and the Republican Party in which they reside — in “The Conscience of a Liberal,” his new book out last week.

Krugman charges Republicans with using their power over the past three decades to undo the New Deal and Democrats’ strengthening of the American middle class.

But he says voters have learned from putting their trust in Republicans and he gleefully chimes the death bells of movement conservatism, leading to a hopeful conclusion in which he encourages Democrats to be “unabashedly liberal” and push for universal health care.

Movement conservativism, according to Krugman, is primarily concerned with making the rich richer, but its preachers know that message won’t appeal to voters. So, he writes, conservatives instead strategized to come to power by other means — capitalizing on racism; falsely suggesting Democrats were weak on national security; courting the religious right, which ignored economic concerns; and voter suppression.

But Americans have moved on to the key issues, he writes, and “it seems probable that movement conservatism’s moment has passed.”

“Conscience” serves as a broad American economic narrative of the 1920s through today.

Krugman likens our current economic conditions to those of the Roaring ’20s, an America that was, he writes, a “land of vast inequality in wealth and power, in which a nominally democratic political system failed to represent the economic interests of the majority.”

He celebrates President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the expanding safety net of the ensuing decades — when unions grew and taxes on the rich soared — which he credits with strengthening the middle class.

Krugman emphasizes the bipartisanship that ruled in the 1950s and ’60s, when Republicans largely acceded to the New Deal (President Dwight Eisenhower said anyone who wanted to roll it back was “stupid”) and there was great consensus with Democrats.

But then, he writes, Republicans did something spectacular: They launched a successful “crusade to dismantle the welfare state in an era of rapidly rising inequality, an era in which taxing the rich to pay for middle- and lower-class benefits should have become more popular, not less.”

As Krugman sees that success crumbling, he believes the solution for Democrats is a return to the progressive policies of the 1930s. He wants Democrats to push for universal health care, resist any attempt to privatize Social Security, and restore the estate tax and other taxes that hit the rich to their pre-Reagan levels.

Krugman indicated he likes positions staked on the issues by the frontrunning 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, especially former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

“John Edwards has been the most aggressively populist and pushing the agenda,” he said in the interview. “Hillary Clinton had been lagging behind, but she did recently put out a health care proposal that was pretty similar to Edwards’.”

In the book, Krugman fondly recalls a 1936 FDR speech in which, he writes, Roosevelt “let the malefactors of great wealth have it with both barrels.” Rich people were “unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred,” Roosevelt said.

Democrats have to stand up for what they believe in the way Roosevelt did, Krugman believes.

Of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), he said in the interview, “I’d like to hear more FDR rhetoric from him. There’s too much ‘We need to end the partisanship’ from him, and I don’t think that’s what we need right now.”

Krugman said there can be a return to the comity of the 1950s, when Republicans and Democrats weren’t so different, but it will require Republicans moving to the left.

Though there will be “differences at the margins,” he said, “what I think will happen is universal health care will be as untouchable as Social Security has turned out to be.”

But with conservatives in 2006 having suffered just their first crushing electoral defeat in years, Krugman doesn’t see the parties coming together overnight.

“If I’m right and movement conservatism is in its last throes, as Dick Cheney would say, those throes are going to be pretty ugly,” he said.