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Right on the Edge
By Barbara Belejack
The Texas Observer
Monday 22 October 2004
Paul Krugman talks about the war, the election, and the nakedness of the emperor.
In April 2003, as TV screens repeatedly showed images of Saddam Hussein's statue toppling in Baghdad, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman was publishing a column that proved to be right on target. "One has to admit that the Bush people are very good at conquest, military and political," he wrote. "They focus all their attention on an issue; they pull out all the stops; they don't worry about breaking the rules. This technique brought them victory in the Florida recount battle, the passage of the 2001 tax cut, the fall of Kabul, victory in the midterm elections, and the fall of Baghdad." "Conquest and Neglect," the column published April 11, 2003, is among the new material that appears in the recently published paperback edition of The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (Norton), Krugman's masterful indictment of the Bush administration and the radical revolution designed to change forever the political landscape of America. During a recent trip to Austin, Krugman met with the Observer. The following is an excerpt of the interview:
Texas Observer: The paperback version of your book ends with a quote from John Dean's Worse Than Watergate: "I've been watching all the elements fall into place for two possible political catastrophes, one that will take the air out of the Bush-Cheney balloon and the other, far more disquieting, that will take the air out of democracy." Where are we right now?
Paul Krugman: We're right on the edge between those two possibilities. Things have shifted quite a lot over the past few days. On the one hand, the ruling party really doesn't believe in democratic norms. They've been trying to rig the election in a number of ways, and they've rolled out [the idea] that a vote for John Kerry is a vote for the terrorists, in effect. That's a deeply undemocratic thing, and if they win, they will try to institutionalize that. On the other hand, if they lose and the records are opened-it's pretty obvious that it will be devastating. So it's a weird moment. You feel like people are noticing the nakedness of the emperor-finally-but either just at the last minute or maybe not quite in time.
What happened here after 9/11 was this adulation for the leadership that completely swamped any rational perception of who these guys were and what they were like. [The first presidential] debate had an effect partly because it was as if for the first time in three-plus years, people were able to see without the shroud of glory.
TO: But does the Democratic Party finally get it?
PK: Howard Dean gets it, and it's been interesting to watch him. Having lost the nomination he's been transformed bit by bit from an iconoclast that the party wants to distance itself from, to an effective spokesman for the Kerry campaign. But I still think there are a lot of people who don't want to face up to it.
People have no idea just how rich the rich have gotten. They're more likely to get agitated over the idea that some congressman is getting a few-thousand-dollar junket, and it doesn't register with them that some plutocrat is getting a vastly larger tax break that is going to crimp the ability to provide [government] programs.
The Congressional Budget Office has basically validated everything that critics have said about Bush's tax policies. Sure enough, the tax cuts are bigger as a percentage of income the further up the scale you go. And if you put that together with the CBO's estimates of incomes, you find out that a third of the tax cuts went to the top one percent of families. That will grow over time because the estate tax repeal hasn't fully kicked in yet. The top one percent of families got more tax cuts than the bottom 80 percent of families. We know from other estimates that people earning more than a million a year received more in tax cuts than the bottom 60 percent of families. It really is very heavily elitist, very tilted.
TO: One of the things we learned from the first debate-according to the president-is that the Taliban is no longer in existence.
PK: Afghanistan is really a shameful thing. I was in favor of our going in there: Al Qaeda is based in Afghanistan, the Taliban is sheltering them, they attack us, we go in.... The International Security Force wanted to extend their operations beyond Kabul, and they were willing to put in more soldiers. And the United States basically said, "No, we want to do our search and destroy operations outside Kabul. We don't want you guys to spread out." But we didn't put in enough soldiers to secure the country. And so the warlords are back, and the Tailban is back.
This business about the Taliban not being in existence-it's one of those things where you're wondering what is happening: Was he just being casual, and what he meant to say is that we overthrew them, or does he really not know?
In the first debate, Bush said that when Kerry voted to authorize force [in Iraq] he saw the same intelligence Bush did-which may not be a lie. What we know is that important intelligence was withheld from the Senate. They were never told that most of the aluminum tube story was garbage. They were never told that the Niger uranium purchase story was garbage. So, important intelligence was withheld. But we don't know whether Bush ever knew any of that, or looked at it.... I've heard that Bush didn't know just a few months before the Iraq war that there was a difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
What's interesting and sad is how predictable so many things were. This whole arc has a nightmare feel to it: You see it all happening, you see how it's going to happen, and not enough people will believe you. And then it just keeps going along. If people would step back and think to themselves, "What happened to America, the great superpower, over these last three years?", they would be wondering why we can't get rid of Bush, why we have to wait another couple months. They managed to get us trapped in this completely hopeless situation, for which there's no outcome that in some sense won't look like a big defeat for the United States. The only question is, how big? And a bunch of people will have died for a mistake.
TO: The day after the election, what's the column if Kerry wins?
PK: Do not be magnanimous in victory. I hope the people around him understand that this is not politics as we know it. It's not, "OK, well, we won an election. After the election we'll get together and work in a bipartisan way to help the country." They didn't work in a bipartisan way when the United States was attacked. They immediately saw it as a way to achieve political dominance. Kerry has got to understand that he has a window of opportunity to expose what's going on and to rock these people back to the point where we can try to reclaim the normal workings of democracy. Unless there's a true miracle and the Democrats take the House-which is extremely unlikely-it's going to be very bitter political civil war from Day One. The House leadership will try to undermine Kerry. I'm sure they'll try to impeach him almost immediately. On anything.
We can go on and on about Tom DeLay, but the point is Tom DeLay is not an aberrant thing. He's not an accident. The whole thrust of where we've been going for a couple of decades in this country has been towards putting someone like Tom DeLay in a position of great power. So, my column to Kerry, my open letter to him if he wins, will be: Do not be magnanimous. You need to expose and dismantle this machine.
TO: Assuming they don't shred everything beforehand.
PK: They can't shred the people. The biggest thing would be to end the reign of terror in the agencies, so that the CIA and the Treasury Department-the civil servants-can talk about what actually happened. It's obvious that there was intense pressure placed upon the agencies to come up with the conclusion that [the Administration] wanted. But very few people are willing to say that, because these guys play rough. There's a lot of funny stuff involving the Justice Department, where officials who've criticized Ashcroft's handling of stuff-which is disastrous, right? Not a single successful terror prosecution [but] a lot of grandstanding-have found themselves subject to internal investigations. If we can get to a point where these people can speak freely, it will matter a lot. Homeland Security: I want people to be able to talk freely about the timing of terror alerts. You can draw a chart and it's obvious that terror alerts increase when Bush is down in the polls and vanish when he's up in the polls. But we need someone to go on the record and say that they've been used as a political tool.
TO: In writing about the cult of personality surrounding the president, you mention the 27 photographs of him that appear in the 2005 Budget.
PK: I actually went to check and looked at a budget from the Clinton years. It's a rather dry-looking thing with charts and tables. The Bush budget is very much short on charts and tables-it's better not to think about what would be in them. But it has these themes, uplifting themes of various kinds and each of them is illustrated with multiple glossy color photos of Bush doing presidential-type things. Obviously you see him standing in front of a giant American flag talking about homeland security, but you also see him hiking along a mountain trail, comforting the elderly, helping children learn how to read. It really does look like something from a Communist country. You know, I joked when I wrote about it that they forgot the photo of him swimming the Yangtze River. It's very un-American, but it fits in with Operation Flight Suit-that kind of stagecraft, that glorification of the individual leader. What I wrote at the time of the carrier landing is that in the American tradition, the president is a civilian-even if he's a former general. The president does not appear in uniform; he's not a generalísimo; he's not a hero. That's why the Constitution says the president is the commander-in-chief: to make it very clear that civilian authority, not military, runs the country. And then here we are doing these things that are really something that you would expect to see in a banana republic.
TO: What's the column if Bush wins?
PK: I don't really want to think about that. The problem is there are different ways he could win, too.
TO: Jimmy Carter has already written an op-ed in The Washington Post saying that the basic international conditions for a fair election are not there in Florida.
PK: We're within inches of having most of the world, actually all of the world, and quite a few Americans, believing that we're no longer a functioning democracy. That could happen a month from now. Moderates and liberals made a terrible mistake in 2000. Their attitude was well, this was very bad, but the right thing to do was to basically gloss over it and pretend it's okay. That just encouraged these guys. It should have been a mobilizing point. Instead, everything we really know about the voting looks worse this year.... Sometimes it's a little soothing to read history. I have developed a big taste for the novels of Alan Furst, who writes these historical thrillers set in the thirties and forties in Europe. I think the very darkness of it-the fact that we know that it all came out okay, makes you sort of feel better. The other book I read in the last couple of weeks was Rubicon, a new, rather well-written story about the fall of the Roman republic. You find yourself doing that sort of thing. Me and Robert Byrd.
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