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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

By Ezra Klein  |  January 12, 2010; 4:30 PM ET
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My sense is that almost every politician who waded into the middle of this process has gotten hammered -- most of them because they were perceived as gaming the process. (And come to think of it, accurately so. Snowe somehow continues to escape that rap, perhaps less accurately so.)

The politicians who took a strong and consistent stand on either side seem to be positioned somewhat better -- even if their strong and consistent stand consisted of pure nonsense.

Jerks like Lieberman suffer politically, but other jerks like, say, Inhofe and DeMint, are encouraged. "60th-vote" blackmail is disincented, but I think higher-quality senators will come away from this experience even more reluctant to engage in more productive forms of bipartisanship.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | January 12, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse


There's a new Rasmussen poll out that shows Coakley up by only two. Why no word from you on how a Brown upset would shape the final healthcare legislation or possibly kill it?

Posted by: scarlota | January 12, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

The House should just pass the Senate bill as is and be done with it.

Posted by: Jasper99 | January 12, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Nelson was going to get walloped by his constituents no matter what he did. He should have taken the high road and worked for a better bill.

Posted by: bmull | January 12, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

"Legislation doesn't get more popular by sitting in Congress for a long..."

You have no idea how mad people are for this year long charade. I do not believe you or Dems in Congress or White House understand the seriousness of this and how damaging this all has been to the Obama agenda.

I keep repeating - HCR has been at the cost of attention to Economy and President was wrong when he claimed that he can handle so many multiple things at the same time.

Congress has no 'bandwidth' to discuss Economy, Financial Regulations nor anyone including White House interested in selling the 'alternating vision of economy' to bootstrap American Economy.

Every day you open the front page and you have news like China surpassing Germany in exports, China surpassing USA in car sales, China export increases and all that. What do we have here in this country? Job losses of 85K! And what is our Congress doing? Continuing the game played called HCR legislation...

Yes, Ezra you are only talking now this; but this issue of 'opportunity cost paid' in terms of time lost by America's ruler is not addressed enough.

We are all 'drunk' here....

Posted by: umesh409 | January 12, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Nelson is not that bright. I suspect he actually did not know what his concession was going to be until Reid presented him a possibility.

Posted by: pj_camp | January 13, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

I have a feeling that Nelson's protestations that the "Cornhusker kickback" wasn't his idea are actually true! It's Rahm's payback to make him look bad for being the last man standing in the way of the bill. I don't think Nelson ended up looking bad by accident.

Posted by: Rick00 | January 13, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

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