A Riddle:

Q. How would you describe the political ideology of someone who worked for Michael Dukakis’s campaign, was a cabinet secretay for Bill Clinton, holds a high-level position in the Obama Administration, and, who, when applauded at a Federalist Society meeting, responded “Thank you very much–I think. Let me remind you, I am a Democrat. I am proud to be Democrat”?

A. “Right of Center” (The N.Y. Times describing Larry Summers.)

UPDATE: Some commenters suggest that I’ve overlooked the fact that members of the Federalist Society applauded Summers to begin with. No, I haven’t. Summers won the applause of attendees at a Federalist Society held at Harvard Law School because (1) he was extremely popular among Harvard students, and was under attack; (2) his opponents were (primarily) on the far left, and he stood up for common “liberal” (in the classical sense) values against them. The telling aspect of the event was how embarassed and almost upset Summers was to be on the receiving end of such a nice welcome from the Federalists (you can view the video from a link on this page), and how he felt the need to disclaim their affinity for him. Given that the Federalist Society is an ideologically conservative/libertarian organization, I read “I am a Democrat” to mean, “I am a man of the Left.” I don’t know any Federalists who would object to a Justice Thomas or Scalia or Roberts if he were a Democrat.

(Note also that Summers’ ultimate response to the women-in-sciences controversy was to issue an abject apology and throw money at his critics. Summers’ reputation as a “conservative” seems to come from his taking economic positions that are fairly standard even among liberal economists. It reminds me of how people used to complain that the professor who taught intro economics at my alma mater was “conservative” because he opposed rent control and supported free trade. He was actually a Social Democrat, news that he was happy to share with anyone who bothered to ask.)

Also, several commenters complain that this is a “partisan” post. The point of the post is that Times reporters and editors have a very odd definition of “right of center,” and I’d add that reading the Times with this in mind is helpful. I’m a bit at a loss as to why that is “partisan.”

FURTHER UPDATE: Some commenters argue that the Times was describing Summers as a “right of center economist,” which means simply that he is right of center for an economist. This is even more dubious than the notion that Summers is right of center in general. Economists of all political stripes tend to support free trade and negative income taxes, oppose agricultural subsidies and restrictions on capital and labor mobility, and believe that minimum wages cost the young and unskilled employment. When it comes to more politicized issues that economists tend to disagree about, such as whether there should be a minimum wage at all, and whether Social Security should be privatized in whole or in part, Summers is reliably on the “left.”