Ezra Klein, who’s much more sympathetic to the anti-Obama cause than I am, says much of what needs to be said about Paul Krugman’s overreaching effort to paint Barack Obama as an anti-union candidate. But a few additional observations:
One: This kind of thing is why I’ll be glad when this primary race is over. The nominating contest creates large incentives to overstate one’s case. In retrospect, I think I’ve been guilty of this with regard to Hillary Clinton. I prefer other candidates on foreign policy grounds. That’s not to say, however, that she’ll be the second coming of George W. Bush which I think I’ve wrongly implied in the past due to over-investment in some internecine disputes. Similarly, it’s one thing to say that you prefer Edward’s and Clinton’s views on health care and Social Security but that’s a far cry from Obama deserving the label of an “anti-change” candidate.
Two: John Edwards is clearly the most pro-labor candidate in this race. If I were a single-issue voter, this election wouldn’t be a close call. And it’s really too bad that more unions didn’t line up behind Edwards. Instead, many shied away from him on the theory that he was doomed to lose and that Clinton was inevitable. That, of course, has something of a self-fulfilling prophesy dynamic to it and created problems for Edwards in terms of fundraising and national press. Now, as a non-supporter of Clinton with strong Edwards sympathies, I’m worried that an Edwards win in Iowa just leads to a Clinton victory; whereas an Obama win in Iowa leads to an Obama victory. Had the unions all just lined up behind the most pro-labor candidate in the field, I don’t think we would have that problem.
Three: I don’t see any need for liberal pundits to get in the business of denying that labor unions are, in fact, “special interests.” Indeed, it’s impossible to understand the dynamics of American politics without acknowledging them to be special interests. They’re special interests who sometimes take the “wrong” side of policy debates when what’s “right” for the country is “wrong” for the sector in which they work. The CWA often takes bad positions on telecommunications issues because it wants to advance the interests of unionized telecom firm vis-a-vis the interests of non-union firms. Similarly, various unions have in the past clashed with environmental groups and will certainly do so again in the context of a serious push to curb carbon emissions. There’s nothing wrong with that, and liberals should strongly resist the line of inference from “unions are sometimes wrong on public policy questions, therefore we should embrace policies designed to hasten the decline of union membership.” But still, unions are groups that seek to advance the interests of their members. As such, they’re a vital check on what would otherwise be corporate influence run amok. But sometimes the interests of a given union’s members run against the general interests of the country and there’s no sense in denying this.
To return to point one, though, the whole Krugman-Obama feud started over the issue of health insurance mandates. If you think that electing a president who favors an Edwards/Clinton-style individual mandate is likely to lead to a better substantive policy outcome than is electing an opponent of such a mandate, then this constitutes a perfectly good reason all on its own to vote for Edwards or Clinton rather than Obama. It’s an important issue! There’s not really any need to drag additional implausible charges into the mix.
UPDATE: “On health care, Obama is consistently running to the right of his rivals” is a much more accurate characterization of the complaint. I don’t think the legislative prospects for a really awesome health care plan in 2009 are very good no matter who wins the election, so I don’t find this reality incredibly distressing. But it’s an accurate complaint.
Photo courtesy of John Edwards 2008 used under a Creative Commons license