How Politico insists on getting Larry Summers wrong — in order to undermine the Biden agenda

Even after Summers says he supports Build Back Better, Politico published a column to oppose it by claiming “Game, set, match Larry Summers”

To listen to Politico, former Clinton and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers is the key voice on the economic recovery from the pandemic, due to his public worrying earlier this year about the threat of inflation. But Politico isn’t actually listening to Summers, either — instead, it’s twisting his positions in an attempt to slow down the Biden administration’s infrastructure and public investment programs, which Summers actually supports.

In the Wednesday afternoon edition of Politico’s Playbook newsletter, asking whether the White House “owe[d] Larry Summers an apology,” the site said that the Build Back Better bill “might now be a harder sell” because the administration had not followed Summers’ earlier advice, and that there was “a lesson here about the insularity of this White House.”

By Thursday morning, Politico was acknowledging that “Summers supports both BIF and BBB,” while still hailing him as “the OG inflation Cassandra,” and casting him as a White House critic. And it only got worse from there, with the site publishing an opinion piece Thursday that made it appear as if Summers’ position would be to oppose the Biden administration’s infrastructure package and Build Back Better agenda — the exact opposite of his actual stance.

To be clear, inflation is currently a worldwide phenomenon, not just limited to the United States, due to global supply problems in which national economies are recovering out of sync from each other and still subject to localized disruptions. Other experts such as Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi also disagree with Summers on inflation being linked to the size of the pandemic relief bill — which Summers believed was larger than it should have been — arguing instead that “as the Delta wave wanes, inflation will moderate.”

Summers’ position is actually more nuanced than most media outlets have presented. He has previously tweeted that he was not worried about the infrastructure program contributing to inflation, explaining that it would increase the “supply potential” of the economy: “Inflation fears should shape econ policies but it would be tragic if they stopped us from making urgently needed public investments.” And just last week, Summers congratulated Congress on passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, calling it “an important step in the right direction.”

Contrary to the simplistic media portrait, Summers is not some kind of reflexive naysayer against Biden’s agenda, but a supporter voicing caution (rightly or wrongly) on the approach to certain points. All of this became clear on Wednesday night’s edition of CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time.

“My experience is that you should hope for the best, and plan for something much less than the best,” Summers said regarding the inflation situation. “And I think that means stronger actions by the Fed, it means the administration has to be thinking about inflation.”

At the same time, Summers expressed his support for the Build Back Better bill, and the need for longer-term public investments and more taxation of the well-off.

Video file

Citation From the November 10, 2021, edition of CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time

CHRIS CUOMO (ANCHOR): What about the spending bill, Larry?

LARRY SUMMERS: I think it's fine. You know, Chris, if you look at it, the 10 years of the two spending bills together, A, are less than the one year of what they did last spring, and B, unlike what they did last spring, are paid for by tax increases. So, I don't think that's an inflation problem.

I think a lot of it is vitally needed investments in the future of our country. Look, why should it be the case that it takes me 20 more minutes to take a flight from Boston to Washington than it did when I started on the route 40 years ago? It's all about our lagging infrastructure. And there are a ton of other examples.

I think we should be making it easier for people to put their kids in daycare and go back to work.

SUMMERS: Look, I'd probably rather see more emphasis on public investment, and a little less emphasis on transfer payments. I think that's right.

But overall, if you gave me my choice, up or down on this bill, I think up is much better than down, though yes, I'd like to see more of it be public investment. I'd like to see less of it be transfer payments. I'd like to see more revenue — more revenue increases.

But without missing a beat, Politico also posted an opinion column Thursday afternoon from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who cited Summers’ prior warnings on the danger of inflation to criticize Biden’s economic policies: “Game, set, match Larry Summers.”

Having invoked Summers as an authority, Lowry then proceeded to declare that “perhaps it isn’t a great idea to layer the Democrats’ massive social spending bill on top” of spending that has already occurred during the pandemic. After declaring that “the progressive program is always essentially inflationary,” Lowry said Biden “also has, not very convincingly, redefined his infrastructure and Build Back Better proposals as anti-inflationary.”

It may be that Lowry had already written that column in substantial form before Summers’ comments Wednesday night. But given that Summers’ latest remarks went directly against Lowry’s argument, he and Politico should have at least rewritten the piece Thursday morning to reframe (or even delete) any references to Summers. And even then, Lowry ignored the fact that Summers has explicitly supported the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills for months already — which means the column’s framing was inherently dishonest from the beginning. (As Jonathan Chait pointed out, Summers was speaking in support of the broad outlines of Build Back Better in June, when the plan was still “three times its current size.”)

Given the way that Politico is just keeping up a narrative — regardless of the facts or what the people being cited are actually arguing — maybe the site and contributors like Lowry ought to learn their own lesson about the dangers of “insularity.”