Paul Krugman says centrist Democrats need to 'wake up' and realize 'we're not in 1999 anymore'
Paul Krugman (Screenshot)

Liberal economist Paul Krugman is not shy about offering scathing criticism of the Republican Party, but this week in his New York Times column, Krugman offers some brutal assessments of Democrats — specifically, centrist Democrats in Congress who have been trying to water down President Joe Biden's Building Back Better agenda.

Biden himself is a centrist. During his decades in the U.S. Senate, Biden sometimes voted with Republicans and sometimes voted with fellow Democrats — and he took pride in his ability to work out bipartisan deals with GOP allies like the late Sen. John McCain. But Biden believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted so much harm on the U.S. economically that progressive legislation is needed at this time.

However, other centrist Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have argued that some of Biden's Build Back Better proposals have too high a price tag. Krugman vehemently disagrees.

"Political reporting often portrays progressives as impractical and intransigent, unwilling to make the compromises needed to get things done, while centrists are realistic pragmatists," Krugman explains. "What's happening in Congress right now, however, is just the opposite. The Democratic Party's left wing is advancing sensible, popular policies like negotiating on drug prices and cracking down on wealthy tax cheats, and has shown itself willing to make major compromises to advance President Joe Biden's agenda."

Krugman adds, "In particular, the $3.5 trillion in spending Biden is asking for over the next decade is much less than progressives originally wanted. The party's conservative wing, however, seems willing to risk blowing up its own president's prospects rather than give an inch."

One of the reasons why some centrist Democrats in Congress have been fighting "Biden's economic agenda," according to Krugman, is a dogmatic devotion to Clintonism.

"I was struck by something Eric Levitz of New York Magazine said in a recent article on this subject, which helped clarify a point I've been groping toward," Krugman writes. "Namely, some Democrats seem to have formed their perceptions about both economics and politics during the Clinton years and haven't updated their views since. That is, it makes a lot of sense to see Biden's problems getting his plans across the finish line as being caused by the Rip Van Winkle caucus — Democrats who checked out intellectually a couple of decades ago and haven't caught up with America as it now is."

Krugman's argument makes perfect sense. Having lost all three presidential elections during the 1980s, Democratic strategists were elated when Bill Clinton won 1992's presidential election and was reelected in 1996. As many Gen-X Democrats of the 1990s saw it, Clintonism revitalized their party. But Krugman, like Levitz, believes that being stuck in the 1990s serves no useful purpose for Democrats in 2021.

"Some Democrats still seem to believe that they can succeed economically and politically by being Republicans lite," Krugman observes. "It's doubtful whether that was ever true, but it's definitely not true now."

Biden himself was a Clintonian during the 1990s. But in Krugman's view, the 78-year-old president has changed with the times economically — unlike the centrists who are fighting his Build Back Better proposals.

"If there was ever a time when individual Democratic members of Congress could hope to swim against the tide by positioning themselves to the right of their party, that time ended long ago," Krugman emphasizes. "It doesn't matter how much they force Biden to scale back his ambitions; it doesn't matter how many pious statements they make about fiscal responsibility — Republicans will still portray them as socialists who want to defund the police, and the voters they're trying to pander to will believe it. So, my plea to Democratic 'moderates' is: Please wake up. We're not in 1999 anymore."