The trouble with taking hostages
My mental model of Ben Nelson's thinking went something like this: He's a senator from a conservative state who wanted to vote for a liberal bill. He figured the way to sell that to skeptical audiences back home was to extract concessions proving Nebraska benefits from having Nelson in the Senate. The way to gain the leverage necessary to extract those concessions was to loudly and constantly express ambivalence about the ultimate bill. Then, when he got his concessions and flipped, it would be a one-two punch: Nebraskans would know he wasn't a rubber stamp, and they'd get extra goodies that other states didn't get. Hence, Nelson spent months talking the bill down and then cut a deal that was absurdly generous for Nebraska and then declared victory.
Problem was, it was no victory at all. Nelson's concessions are terribly unpopular -- even in Nebraska. More than 60 percent of Nebraskans disapprove of Nelson's deal to help Nebraska. Nor are Nelson's constituents sympathetic to the broader bill.
Nelson isn't alone. All manner of legislators and interest groups recognized that the path to leverage in December was public skepticism in every month before that. After all, it's hard to talk up the bill and then assert that you won't vote for this excellent, excellent legislation unless you get some ideological or parochial concession.
The problem with that strategy, as these politicians and groups are learning, is that it makes the bill very unpopular when it does pass. The media is most interested in unexpectedly skeptical voices, and so these folks gets feted on the Sunday shows and on cable news, where they're asked to explain their skepticism at greater length. Which, of course, they do. So they spend months convincing Americans that this bill isn't very good and then, at the last minute, they cut deals to support the legislation. But Americans don't flip to support the legislation alongside them. Instead, they just decide that politician is craven and figure the legislation is worse, as what good could possibly come from such an ugly process?
To put this another way, how much easier would Nelson's life be right now if he'd made his arguments quietly, extracted his concession swiftly, and the bill had passed months and months ago? Legislation doesn't get more popular by sitting in Congress for a long while, but it's often the legislators who can least afford unpopularity who keep it there.
Update: Asked if he'll support the final bill, Nelson told the Chadron Record, “I hope so, but I’m not 100 percent certain of it."
Photo credit: By Harry Hamburg/Associated Press
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