Political Hacks: The Backlash

Macroeconomic discussions at the Milken Conference tend to feature a great deal of party-political Republican talking points. The lunch panel on Monday was moderated by Steve Forbes, the breakfast panel on Tuesday was moderated by Paul Gigot. And with people like that setting the agenda, it’s hardly surprising that a lot of political speechifying and pandering to the assembled plutocrats tends to obscure any substantive points which might get made.

But when Tom Donohue, President and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, said this morning that "Nancy Pelosi is an agent for Chávez", he actually got booed – something I haven’t heard at a Milken panel before. (He earlier got applauded for a mini-speech about how the US should drill for more oil.) The CBO’s Peter Orszag, on the same panel, said that many of the free-trade types on the right were increasingly out of touch when it comes to the deep-felt anti-trade sentiments in most of the country; Donohue simply responded by saying that pro-trade proponents should work on their vocabulary.

Orszag touched on something real, not only in the nation but even at the conference. the mood of the conference (to use the cliché) is one of pervasive worry and uncertainty. People are losing equity in their homes, they’re scared of inflation, they fear the implications of a deep recession, they’re more interested in not losing money than they are in making it. Suzanne Nora Johnson said early on in the panel that "investors are making an irrational economic decision" when they choose Treasuries over safer corporate securities, and those irrational investors are precisely the kind of people who come to this conference.

In that atmosphere, the kind of rah-rah rhetoric which went down well last year is increasingly sounding rather hollow. That’s a good thing: it means that always-cut-taxes wing of the Republican Party is going to either moderate itself a bit or else become irrelevant. After the panel, one delegate came up to me and complained, apropos of nothing, that the panelists were "idealogues, when we’re looking for objective analysis from an independent think tank".

Maybe next year, we’ll get that. But for the time being, it seems as though we’re seeing the final throes, if you will, of those idealogues.

Update: Eddy Elfenbein finds an old quote from Pelosi which should clear things up a little: "Hugo Chavez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar but all he is an everyday thug," she said in September 2006.

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