Tuesday, July 08, 2008

From Belgian Endive to Crocs

There are many reasons why the Dukakis Presidential campaign of 1988 will be remembered as one of the least inspired efforts in modern political history. Some will point to the ridiculous image of Dukakis in a tank. Others will note his emotionless, robotic (not in the Wall-E sense!) answer to the question of how he would react if his wife were raped and murdered. Still others will note how Lee Atwater et al snookered Dukakis with the Pledge of Allegiance and other cultural issues. For me, though, the best symbol of the problematic nature of the Dukakis campaign came early, when, trying to woo Iowa voters, he suggested that they should diversify from a corn (and soybean) economy to grow more exotic, high-value crops like Belgian endive.

In the 2008 Presidential election, the by-now standard media narrative casts Sen. Obama as the heir to Dukakis---much more charismatic to be sure, but still the choice of the egghead set, what right-wingers (and others) derisively call "latte liberals." And yet, there is a much more important, and more substantive, sense in which Sen. McCain is the logical heir to the Belgian-endive-to-the-rescue approach of Gov. Dukakis.

Given the cultural salience, Dukakis made a politically maladroit choice in arguing to Iowa farmers that they should grow Belgian endive, but his more important mistake was thinking that the economy of Iowa and other midwestern/Great Plains farm states could be revived dramatically by shifting from mass production of commercial grains to artisanal crops. The limitations of the latter model are (and already were) apparent in France, where essentially artisanal agriculture is economically viable principally because of government subsidies. Perhaps the elimination of agricultural subsidies worldwide, and a major shift away from corn-fed animal products in the American diet (which would be independently valuable on health, environmental and animal wellbeing grounds) would make a national endive policy sensible, but it wasn't viable in 1988 and isn't yet today.

As a matter of overall economic policy, there was a kernel of sense in what Dukakis was saying, but it probably was more applicable to the industrial than to the agricultural sector. As the U.S. economy has shed jobs in manufacturing, it has added jobs in services. Some of these are high-wage, but many aren't. Sensible industrial policy encourages the growth of industries in which the U.S. has a competitive advantage. In recent years, that has been the high-tech sector. The sensible industrial policy equivalent of the endive gambit would be something like a policy that encourages R&D investment in green tech.

Both Presidential candidates occasionally talk about a strategy along these lines, but Sen. McCain's talk seems the more, well, "endivish." He wants to keep taxes low to unleash the magic of the market. And he supports free trade so that the products of American ingenuity can be exported the world over. His key example? Wait for it . . . wait for it . . . okay: Crocs. That's right, John McCain wants, as his symbol of American ingenuity, a slightly more comfortable sandal. Here's the full quote from the NY Times:
This former small business now employs 600 people in Colorado alone, and sells over 50 percent of its products in 90 countries around the world. Building barriers to Crocs or any American company’s access to foreign markets will have a devastating effect on our economy and jobs, and the prosperity of American families.’’
Granted, they're comfy. Indeed, I'm wearing a pair of them now. Of course, I drink soy lattes and drive a Prius. So not only is the Croc a preposterous example of how to revive American competitiveness---virtually all footwear sold in the U.S. is now manufactured abroad, including Crocs. (Mine were made in Mexico.) But the Crocs example is culturally resonant with Belgian endive. However, because McCain-as-Dukakis does not fit the offical narrative, look for it to be ignored by the non-DoL media.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Neil H. Buchanan said...

I love the idea of a world divided between DoL media and non-DoL media. As part of the DoL media, I scoff at the infidels. They are, however, paid much better.

Sobek said...

"However, because McCain-as-Dukakis does not fit the offical narrative..."

I'd say it's more that McCain's problems run far, far deeper than just his crocs comment. Was there a recent Democrat candidate who apparently despised his base and went out of his way to piss them off? Because that's the narrative with legs.

On a related note, I strongly suspect McCain will be less of a Dukakis and more of a Mondale. At least in terms of electoral drubbings.

Garth Sullivan said: "it's another illustration of how the MSM is 'out to get' democratic candidatesand ignore republican gaffes routinely."

Did you miss the part where Prof. Dorf got his information on this from the New York Times?

Tam Ho said...

The story line of the NYT article from which the excerpt came was "McCain Reverts to Balanced Budget Pledge." The story was not that McCain is out of touch or that he made a gaffe, nor is it even mentioned or hinted to.

I think that is the point of MCD's post.

Re: Unequal pay for DoL media -- perhaps its members should consider unionizing? ;-)

egarber said...

On a sort of related note, I attended the Obama townhall meeting in the Atlanta burbs yesterday. I've posted parts of this in other places, but here are some thoughts (sorry for the length):

He didn't take a whole lot of questions, but he was super comfortable throughout (I’m not sure why pundits think McCain is more effective than Obama in townhall settings). He connected well with the audience and put on display his skills as a deep thinker. He fought back hard on the idea that he has flip-flopped on anything, and he effectively connected Iraq to our current economic issues, in that it’s draining billions from what needs to be done here. He also made a great comment on the deficit, saying something like, "Presidents 1 thru 42 amassed $5.2 trillion in total debt. George W Bush, on his own, has generated $4 trillion."

He was loose and extremely funny at times. For instance, in a chat about how important it is to stay in school, he said something like, "look, without an education, your only shot to succeed big time is becoming a pro basketball player. And let me tell my brothers up here in front, you may be good enough in your own mind, but you’re not getting into the NBA. Also, you’re probably not gonna make it as a rapper either." I’d say the crowd was about 75% African American, so these lines went over well.

Overall, the crowd was super lively, and the place was packed; I don’t recall energy like this in Georgia on the Democratic side since Bill Clinton took the state in 1992. Afterward, John Lewis (one of my heroes) chatted with a few of us outside and said Barack was a combination of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Great quote.

My sense is that Obama will struggle to actually win Ga, but at this point, I think McCain will have to spend money here – that in itself is a huge vindication of the Obama / Dean 50-state strategy. That will certainly help down-ballot Democrats (people tend to forget that part of the dynamic when turnout increases). And if a red state like this starts to wobble, falling within maybe 5-10 points, what does that say about what might be going on in already purple-ish states like Ohio and Colorado?

On the substance, Obama is just fine in a town hall setting. One random thought I have relates to how, when speaking, he blows holes through a longstanding myth pushed forever by some on the Right: if you think government has a role to play, that must mean you want handouts and don't work hard. Barack often mentions personal responsibility alongside economic policy proposals. For example, today he called for increased spending in childhood education -- but he also said it won't work without parents playing their role. He said fathers must be around for their kids.

Perhaps borrowing from John Edwards, he frames the whole thing as a moral call for dignity -- i.e., if you work hard, you should be entitled to basic economic security. So I think this is an example where Barack speaks in a new way about our old divides.

Obama certainly wants to engage the policy side of the presidency, but he also sees the office as a kind of pulpit I think, where he can lead intangibly on top of his assumed duties.

Dare I say, he might be a uniter.

Sobek said...

Just a quick OT question: is there anything that Barack Obama could do to lose your support? For example, he just voted for the FISA bill with retroactive immunity, after saying in December, 2007:

"Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies... Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same. "

Is there anything Obama could say that would make you see him as just another politician? If so, what?

egarber said...


I can tell you honestly that his vote on the FISA compromise feels a bit like a kick in the stomach. I'm very dissapointed that a constitutional lawyer failed to leverage that expertise -- he knows better than to support that lousy bill.

For me though, it's the overall alignment with his thinking that will keep me in his camp. And I do think he is different in a lot ways, given his background and approach to issues (as we've discussed).

Generally, I think the flip-flopping accusations are way overblown. There are two that I think actually have teeth -- the public financing opt out (which I'm ok with) and the FISA vote (which I'm NOT ok with). Ironically, McCain has flip-flopped much more substantially (we'll get into that later); so far though, he's getting a pretty big pass in the media.

But your point is taken. A few more sellouts like the FISA vote, and my energy would start to dampen.

On the FISA, matter, I think I might care more about the rule going forward than the immunity issue. As I understand it, the executive branch no longer needs any kind of individualized warrant before going after an "agent of a foreign power" and by extension all of his / her contacts -- which means that Americans and permanent residents will no doubt continue to be ensnared in the net. Now unfortunately, we can't call it lawless usurpation of unchecked power though, because the Democrats caved and codified the program.

To this day, I've never seen a compelling argument as to why the previous version couldn't work in today's environment.

If the prof is watching, maybe we can get him to write a post on the compromise bill.

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