Reporters Need To Toss Outdated Rolodexes And Contact New Economic Minds. If Summers Can’t Even Stand Moderate Democratic Policy Priorities, How Can He Be A “Democratic” Talking Head?
Earlier this week, Former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers joined the Peterson Institute for International Economics for a discussion about American industrial and foreign policy. Summers served as the Democratic counterweight to George W. Bush’s U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick.
The conversation was fairly agreeable as both talking heads revealed their shared distaste for the modern Democratic Party’s economic policy, a niche Summers has carved for himself in the past three or so years. In his opening remarks, Summers stated that while he supports some of what has transpired under the Biden years, he feared the consequences of the Administration’s economic policies, particularly efforts to strengthen supply chains by reshoring key manufacturing back to the US. He later doubled down on his criticism of the administration, describing the Biden Administration’s “doctrine” as “ increasingly dangerous.”
Throughout the discussion, Summers complained about the Administration’s more robust enforcement of antitrust law (he has recently called it a “war on business”), referenced his repeated complaints about Covid social spending, and centered his opposition to the Administration’s efforts to protect and grow American manufacturing.
What’s more, Summers has steadfastly disagreed with the Sellers’ Inflation theory (a much-lambasted but factually-based theory), placing him out of step with 90% of registered Democrats who believe it has at least contributed to inflation and the White House, which has also embraced the explanation.
Biden’s agenda isn’t all Summers dislikes, as he has even found himself to the right of centrist Democrats like Joe Manchin and Steny Hoyer. More than anything, Summers’ use as a proxy for Democratic economic thought by the media seems preposterous given his views are no longer those of the Democratic Party.
Mainstream American media strives for a semblance of balance between the two parties in their coverage. This is particularly apparent on cable news, where it is common to see both a Republican-aligned pundit and a Democrat-aligned one debating an issue on air. This is also backed up by research; a 2022 Pew Research study found that journalists working at cable news outlets were more likely than their print journalist peers to believe that every side of a debate deserves equal coverage in the news. This raises its own issues, but the precarious balancing act only functions if both sides are actually represented. Unfortunately for us all, party labels are often the shorthand producers use to pursue impartiality.
Larry Summers is the go-to choice for cable news producers and print journalists seeking a Democratic voice on any given economic issue. Between April 1st, 2022 and April 1st, 2023, The Revolving Door Project found that Summers had appeared on news channels no less than 81 times. A large portion of these appearances were as a contributor to Bloomberg’s Wall Street Week, but Summers also appeared 18 times on CNN along with appearances on MSNBC, NBC, and Yahoo Finance. In addition to this, Summers is frequently featured in the pages of the New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
It seems that Summers’ influence and the press’s interest in his views have actually grown due to his repeated criticism of Biden’s economic agenda.Despite currently being out of step with the Biden Administration on major economic issues (including the President’s two largest economic policy programs), Summers has been steadily called up by producers and reporters looking to either fulfill their Democrat quota on a given story or create a narrative of intra-party conflict. Economics is not a static field and there has been significant ideological movement among economists since Summers first gained national prominence in the 1990s. In fact, as the size of the Covid recovery packages shows, there has been a notable shift in the field since Summers’ two-year stint as chair of Obama’s National Economic Council. While most of the party has veered in a more progressive direction, Summers has stuck to his guns, positioning himself to the right of most Democratic-affiliated economists.
Let’s dig into the extensive list of Summers’ misalignment with the party’s policies and priorities. Summers’ take on student debt relief? You guessed it, also out of step with the Biden Administration. Summers lampooned the program as inflationary and a poor use of money, in addition to calling for a smaller, means-tested relief.
Summers’ take on inflation? Despite 90% of registered Democrats believing in Sellers’ Inflation theory and the White House embracing the theory, Summers has steadfastly disagreed with it despite all evidence to the contrary.
Summers has also regularly derided the American Rescue Plan — the Administration’s first major legislative victory — for its large investments in social programs, including expanding unemployment insurance, expanding the Child Tax Credit, and providing significant rental housing assistance. Summers trashed the bill as “the least responsible macroeconomic policy we’ve had in the last 40 years” and said it would lead to a recession. This past Wednesday, the Federal Reserve announced they do not forecast a recession in the next year.
While the previously mentioned disagreements display a serious ideological rift between Summers and the Biden Administration, it is his opposition to Biden’s industrial policy that severs him completely from the Democratic fold. Summers may find a range of bedfellows who also reject sellers’ inflation, regret their support of the American Rescue Plan and disagree with the Biden administration’s robust antitrust agenda. However, his opposition of Biden’s industrial policy is an increasingly lonely position, especially considering how universally popular it is across the party’s ideological lines.
Biden’s renewal of American Industrial Policy is largely concentrated in three major pieces of legislation: the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, The CHIPS Act, and The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Summers has actually voiced support for the CHIPS Act due to its specific investments in semiconductor manufacturing, but he has hinted at complaints regarding the IRA and has been far more open about his dislike of the Infrastructure Law (a bill which received even Republican votes.)
At the Peterson Institute event, Summers was clear in saying he supported the IRA, only to later complain indirectly about key provisions of the legislation, including its creation of manufacturing jobs (Summers seemed particularly aggrieved that it creates union jobs) and the fact that the IRA programs are a “patchwork of subsidies nationalistically oriented towards manufacture.” Summers’ also complained about Biden’s policy hurting Europe’s clean energy goals, a lear reference to the IRA’s significant investment in green technology manufacturing that has been brought up time and again by IRA opponents since the bill was signed into law. Summers’ attacks on the IRA deride a bill that not only received an “aye” vote from every elected Democrat in Congress but a bill that was indelibly shaped by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, America’s most notorious centrist. Summers cannot hide behind the claim that he supported the IRA if he insults it, and he cannot claim he only stands against the priorities of the progressive wing of the party if he stands to the right of even Joe Manchin.
The Biden Administration’s industrial policy not only is based on a bill Joe Manchin helped write but has been a central issue to noted centrist stalwart Steny Hoyer, the moderate thorn in Nancy Pelosi’s side for decades. Hoyer has been a major proponent of industrial onshoring for decades, using the slogan of “Make it in America” for his once-Sisyphean campaign. Now, the Make it in America slogan seems to ring strongly in the Democratic caucus chambers. Hoyer has built a small following of Democratic members who enthusiastically support these measures, including many from the centrist New Democrat Coalition. If the fulfillment of their policy preferences is too liberal for Summers, it’s clear he’s no longer part of the party.
Media outlets ostensibly want unbiased news. That is why they so often partner a Democrat with a Republican, seeking balanced coverage of the issue at hand. But the inclusion of an outdated neoliberal figure like Larry Summers on the Democratic roster leaves programming without a true Democratic counterweight. A man who hates the core policies of the Democratic Party and holds no current position within it cannot realistically serve as its representative, even if only for a five-minute TV hit.
The producers who have lazily called up Summers for years need to spend the time to get to know the modern Democratic landscape and ask for interviews accordingly. There is no shortage of interesting Democratic policymakers and economists to interview for those seeking to remain relevant.