The Center-Wonk Vote
By Arnold Kling
I went to this event, featuring Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat, authors of Grand New Party. Some observations:The authors were introduced as being under thirty. Salam made a generationally-assertive move, taking out his cell phone rather than a watch to track his time limit.
In the book, the two economists who get cited most prominently on health care are Jason Furman and Brad DeLong. Furman supports progressive cost-sharing, meaning that people would face co-payments and deductibles that are a percentage of income. DeLong favors progressive HSA’s, meaning that people would put 15 percent of their incomes into health savings accounts, and expenses above that would be paid by government.
Furman was recently named the policy director for Barack Obama, and DeLong is a very partisan Democrat in terms of attitude. But both are sort of center-wonks when it comes to economic issues.
I would say that if you want Douthat-Salam policies, your best bet is probably to root for Obama. As I’ve said a number of times, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to listen to center-wonk policies. Again, my examples would be transportation deregulation under Carter and NAFTA under Clinton. At the session, Douthat and Salam seemed stumped by a question from Fred Barnes about who in the Republican Party will champion their ideas.
It seemed to me that President Bush was willing to go center-wonk on Social Security and on health care, but the Congressional Democrats would have none of it. They are more likely to go along with center-wonk if President Obama leads the way.
Douthat and Salam say that center-wonkism (my term) is a good political strategy for Republicans, because the policies would help working-class voters, of whom whites already form a key Republican constituency and ethnics are an important potential constituency. I suppose that you could carve out a difference between the two parties by having the Republican center-wonks cater to traditional families with children and having Democratic center-wonks cater to single moms, childless couples, and non-traditional families. But honestly, I don’t think anyone outside the Beltway uses tax credits as an indicator of where the parties stand on family issues.
My personal view is that center-wonkism has no constituency beyond the think tanks and the universities. Again, sometimes a Democratic President will adopt center-wonkish policies, but not because of their political appeal.
My opinion is that the center is shrinking. Instead, people are clumped in various places. There is a socialist clump, a libertarian clump, a southern evangelical clump, a green clump, and so on. Because of our two-party system, the Presidential nominees scramble toward what they hope is the middle, but in reality there is no dominant center. Instead, think long tail.
There was a time when I would have rooted for the center-wonks. Now, though, I prefer something more radical, like competitive government. So I’d rather escape from current reality by reading history or by reading David Friedman than get immersed in today’s discussions over policy and political coalition-building.