Politics & Policy

Run, Larry, Run

A Kudlow challenge to Chuck Schumer would expose the ruinous economics of Washington's current social agenda.

Just when the gloom in the Empire State seemed thicker than ever, a ray of light pierced the darkness. The New York Post reported on Friday that economist and CNBC commentator Larry Kudlow was said to be contemplating a challenge to Sen. Chuck Schumer in response to a Draft Kudlow movement. 

Could the revolt taking place in other states spread to the epicenter of the tax-and-spend ideal? Voters in New Jersey (who just installed Chris Christie in the governor’s mansion) and Massachusetts (who just sent Scott Brown to the senate) have rejected their state’s machines. That couldn’t happen in New York, right?

It’s true that the old guard in the Empire State appears to have as imperially tight a grip on power as ever. Unless a credible opposition emerges, New York’s two Senate seats and its governor’s chair — all up for grabs this year — will almost certainly go to candidates backed by the entrenched political establishment. Andrew Cuomo will take the governor’s mansion; Schumer and his protégé Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed by Gov. David Paterson to fill the seat Hillary Clinton vacated, will return to the Senate.

Cuomo, Gillibrand, and Schumer: It’s a lineup that promises about as much fresh thinking as a Politburo meeting in the Brezhnev era. The Cuomos have been a fixture of New York’s political establishment since the Seventies. Gillibrand cut her political teeth under Andrew Cuomo in the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton years; she and Schumer are now senatorial soulmates. Schumer himself has been in Congress for nearly three decades.

Will Kudlow challenge him? “The only thing I’ve said and I’ll continue to say,” he told The Daily Caller, is that “I’m honored to be considered.” But “defeating Senator Schumer,” he added, “would be a noble cause.”

It would be perfectly understandable if Kudlow declined to put himself and his family through the hell of a campaign. But if he did throw his hat in the ring, his candidacy would be an important one.

Washington is engaged in two big policy debates: whether to expand the social state through nationalized health care, cap-and-trade legislation, and massive increases in government spending; and how to fix the government’s too-big-to-fail banking policy without wrecking the nation’s capital markets.

At this critical juncture, Candidate Kudlow could make a vital contribution to the debate. That’s because the combination of gifts he possesses is so rare. Kudlow is at once an economic expert and an expert communicator. As an economist, he was “present at the creation” of Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the Eighties, when he served as associate director of economics and planning in Reagan’s OMB. As a communicator, he reaches a vast audience through CNBC’s The Kudlow Report and WABC radio’s The Larry Kudlow Show. He can tell you the top marginal income tax rate when President Kennedy proposed his own epochal tax cuts in 1962 (91 percent). What’s more, he can make you understand the significance of those cuts in a way few other economists can.

Hillary Clinton made a “listening tour” of New York during her quest for a New York Senate seat a decade ago. Kudlow’s campaign would more closely resemble a teaching tour. His classroom would have no shortage of exhibits. If you want to see what’s wrong with President Obama’s plans to expand the social state, take a look at New York. “One out of every eight New York workers,” observes E. J. McMahon, director of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy, “is a unionized government employee; the ratio averages one out of 19 in the rest of the country.” The lavish pay and benefits these public-sector workers receive stifle the productive element of the state’s economy and hurt ordinary New Yorkers, who fund the luxurious mandarins out of their own, generally smaller, paychecks. In 51 out of New York’s 62 counties, McMahon notes, “the average salary for state and local government jobs is higher than the private-sector average.”

New York’s fiscal nightmare is America’s fiscal future — or will be if Senator Schumer has his way. He has his own “creation” story: He was there when Nebraska’s “Cornhusker Kickback” was hammered out in Senate health-care negotiations. “I’ve been in Harry Reid’s office for 13 hours, and I’m glad to get out of there,” Schumer said of that profile in senatorial courage. “But I’m particularly glad with what has happened in that office.”

The crucial challenge for a Kudlow campaign would be to find images that make vivid the broken promises of the social state Senator Schumer is trying to expand. Candidate Reagan did that when, in August 1980, he went to the corner of Charlotte Street and Boston Post Road in the South Bronx to make the case that the New York model wasn’t working. Candidate Kudlow could make use of similarly dramatic tableaux in New York’s upstate cities, among the most stagnant in the nation, where much of the recent population growth comes from trucking in prisoners and where most of the new jobs are on the government payroll.

Schumer won reelection in 2004 with 70 percent of the vote, and his campaign chest is full. But there are indications that, consumed as he is with Washington intrigue, he’s out of touch with his constituents. “And let me say this to all of the chattering class that so much focuses on those little, tiny, yes, porky amendments,” he declared in the Senate chamber last year. “The American people really don’t care.” It took him a while to figure out that the administration’s decision to try alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed a stone’s throw away from Ground Zero wasn’t popular in the Big Apple. Not until last week did the senator get around to asking the administration to try the sheikh somewhere else.

Kudlow could exploit such tone deafness in a campaign that would almost certainly be the best thing to happen in New York politics in decades. New York politicians are even less used to confronting intelligent opposition than Massachusetts ones. A Kudlow challenge would force Schumer to defend not merely the greasy deal-making he’s abetted in Washington, but the ruinous economic calculus of the policies his deals are meant to prop up. It would be a fascinating — and enlightening — spectacle.

Run, Larry, run.

– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.

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