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Why Larry Summers Still Triggers Washington. (It Isn’t His Economics.)

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There are a handful of personalities who can unilaterally trigger official Washington. Hillary Clinton is probably the boldest of the names on that list. But you can from time to time see former Presidents, former House Speakers — one in particular — and super PAC donors come forward with an unorthodox utterance or a glancing criticism. Their argument is usually written off as hypocrisy or bitterness, its merits rarely given the attention it deserves.

Which brings us to everyone’s favorite villain economist, Larry Summers. Writing in the Washington Post last Thursday, the former Treasury Secretary to Bill Clinton and National Economic Council Director to Barack Obama suggested that perhaps Joe Biden’s current pandemic relief proposal is so big it risks triggering inflation and “much of the policy discussion has not fully reckoned with the magnitude of what is being debated.”

The blowback was fierce. At the White House, Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein blew off his former colleague’s counsel. “With respect to Larry and his piece, it’s just flat out wrong that our team is, quote, ‘dismissive of inflationary risks,’” he said Thursday. “Janet Yellen is our Treasury secretary, OK? She knows a little something about inflationary risks.”

More than 200 alumni from the Obama Administration signed a letter released Friday in support of Biden’s plan, as the splatter from Summers’ op-ed was still fresh. That same day, the liberal New Republic published this headline: “Larry Summers Is Finally, Belatedly, Irrelevant.” The economic press corps revelled in the rare drama in its circles and the political writers were reminded after four years of Donald Trump’s tweet-based churn that policy discussions could again yield debate.

But a lot of the rage was about who started the conversation. Progressive Twitter, predictably, dredged up all of the reasons official Washington has clashed with Summers over the years, including his notoriously difficult personality, the sexist language he used while serving as Harvard’s President and his under-selling of the 2009 stimulus package.

Republicans, of course, are giddy to have Summers saying what they’ve been saying all along — that Biden’s plan is simply too big. The Sunday show chatter featured plenty of Summers-izing. “Larry Summers is a liberal Democrat who’s a Keynesian, in favor of big government spending, and he has said, ‘This is way too much,’” Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania said on CNN yesterday.

By the time Summers published a follow-up column with the Washington Post yesterday, it was clear he wasn’t backing down. He praised the Biden team and its ambition but cautioned “a substantial part of the program should be directed at promoting sustainable and inclusive economic growth for the remainder of the decade and beyond, not simply supporting incomes this year and next.” He then went on to answer the critics of his policy argument and to explain why they were wrong.

Summers is one of the smartest folks who have worked in Washington. But his academic argument — which Moody’s chief economist Mark Zandi says adds up — is secondary to the character he represents in certain Democratic circles. He has a reputation as being hard to work with, and reportedly falls asleep in meetings that don’t interest him. He’s seen as a corporate henchman and traitor to progressive causes. When it became known that Summers had been advising the Biden campaign, groups like Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement lodged complaints. Biden and Summers went their separate ways and Summers promised that he wouldn’t join any eventual Biden Administration.

Which is why Summers is now writing op-eds to get his message to Biden. When you make someone like Summers an outcast, that doesn’t make them mute. Summers has thoughts, and he’s going to keep saying them, whether Washington wants to hear them or not. It brings to mind the famous comment of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was said to struggle with what to do about FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. “Well,” Johnson rationalized, “it’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in.”

Well, Summers is definitely on the outside at this moment, and there’s no reason to think he’s going to be bullied into silence. If tales are true, he’s one of the biggest bullies Washington has ever seen.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com