The strange politics of Kent Conrad
The Wall Street Journal has an uncommonly probing article on Kent Conrad that contrasts the self-styled deficit hawk's rhetoric on spending with his stubborn insistence on bringing home billions in subsidies and pork for his state. This is the first time I've ever seen Conrad try to explain away the disconnect:
Mr. Conrad says he recognizes the apparent contradiction between his hawkishness on the deficit and his determination to bring as much money as possible to his state. But his efforts for his state, he says, are tiny relative to the overall budget, and shouldn't undermine the bigger quest to tame deficit spending.
"Yes, the small things are important to my state," he says. "But I also recognize that the big things are what matter from a national perspective. What really matters is that we have an overall plan that is balanced."
That's not a crazy response. But it's also not entirely true. Conrad doesn't just vote for the small things. He voted for the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit -- which will add trillions to the deficit over time -- because Republicans agreed to make it more expensive by adding money for rural hospitals. But, to his credit, he opposed Bush's tax cuts.
The distinguishing feature of the budget conversation, however, is that it happens at a very abstract level. This red line needs to come down to meet this black line, and this huge number needs to eventually become this slightly-smaller number. That's all fine for a floor speech, but when you start trying to muscle the red line into position or subtract from the very big number, things get real specific, real quick. Suddenly, you're telling seniors that there are treatments they just can't get and you're telling workers that the insurance system is going to have to change. And just as Conrad doesn't have much appetite for doing that to his constituents on the small things that most of them don't notice, very few legislators have demonstrated much appetite for doing this to the country on the big things that pretty much everyone notices.
I think you can go too far bashing Conrad for deficit hypocrisy. The fact that the guy is perennially pushing for a commission that'll do this stuff outside the normal Senate rules is evidence that he has some sense of the structural problems here and is looking for ways to get around them. But his career is proof that intentions matter a lot less than incentives, and Conrad is strangely comfortable scolding others for their profligacy even as he can't hold the line himself.
Photo credit: By Melina Mara/The Washington Post