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The strange politics of Kent Conrad

PH2010011503907.jpgThe 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

By Ezra Klein  |  February 4, 2010; 1:48 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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Next: Why you can't leave health-care reform to the states


What is with the use of tilt/shift lenses on Kent Conrad's face? Is the photographer trying to say something that I'm missing?

Posted by: user435 | February 4, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I blame the Dem leadership for putting DINOs like this guy in positions of authority. It's as if they never considered that important progressive legislation might have to go through the budget reconciliation process. The public sees the resulting gridlock and that's one reason I think Dems are going to be punished at the polls.

Posted by: bmull | February 4, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like more of the same to me ... we're always willing to cut 'other people's pork' than our own. Too many people are just not willing to 'share the pain' equally.

Posted by: onewing1 | February 4, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The case of Conrad is special. He is especially self righteous because he earned vast deficit hawk credibility some time ago (I think in 1992 when you were, by my calculations around 10).

When First elected, Conrad promised that he wouldn't run for re-election if the Federal government hadn't managed to eliminate the deficit. It didn't and he didn't run for re-election.

He is still in the Senate because he was appointed to finish Quentin Burdick's term.

My guess is that since the day he announced that, as promised, he wasn't running for re-election, he has been allowed to do whatever he wants and still be a hero to deficit hawks.

Power corrupts and so does a worshipful press corps (just look at McCain).

Posted by: rjw88 | February 4, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

There's no political upside to being a true deficit hawk.

Exra- by your estimation who is the best deficit man in the Senate?

Posted by: Quant | February 4, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Deficit hawks crack me up about as much as neocon chickenhawks. In both cases, its someone ranting about the urgency of someone else needing to show courage and boldness and do politically unpopular things, be it someone else fighting and dying for their country, or someone else clamping down on "runaway deficits".

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 4, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

"That they haven't moved is evidence that will is missing, not that the rules are too complex."

Exactly! A great way for anyone to help supply congressional Democrats with some will is to give a quick call to your representative's office. It's very easy and it really does count for something. Phone numbers, more info, and a chance to share your call at

Posted by: privacy3 | February 4, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

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