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A good message is not nearly as important as a fast process

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"Democrats were too busy dealing [on the health-care bill] to come up with a counter story," sighs Harold Pollack. "Not just once, in a complicated speech, but every day and in ways that connect."

My basic position on the White House's health care messaging is that it's not been as good as it could have been, but it wouldn't necessarily have mattered if it had been much better. The biggest problem, the one that's made everything else so difficult, is not what President Obama hasn't said, but how much time he's had to not say it. The process has simply taken too damn long.

No president, under any circumstances, can control the narrative around a piece of legislation when it's on the front pages every day for a year. The media report new things, not old things. "President still thinks caring for one another is important" is an old thing. So too is "health-care reform bill still projected to cut deficits, much as it was yesterday." "Ben Nelson given special Medicaid deal" is a new thing, and so too is "documents show health-care industry spent $648 million buying members of Congress."

The new things that happen are all twists in the legislative process. Deals that get cut. Votes that have to be taken. Angry statements by Republicans. Fights over the public option. Scandals reporters unearth. To the media, the story is how the bill gets passed, which means the attention is on what stands between it and passage, which means the daily story is always and everywhere the part of the bill that is controversial and giving everyone heartburn. The fact that the story of the Medicaid deal is much smaller than the fact of the bill is immaterial. They both end up on A1.

This focuses Americans on the part of the political process that scares them: disagreement. In their book "Stealth Democracy: Americans' Beliefs About How Government Should Work," the political scientists John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse use focus groups and voluminous survey data to show that people don't know much about policy and don't care much about policy. Instead, they believe in broad goals for the country, and they think that political actors working in good faith could accomplish those goals with a minimum of disagreement if they were interested in doing so.

"People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals," write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, "and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests."

Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren't acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that's often true. Add in the disagreement that stems from party politics, and you've got a pretty ugly sphere. The hope, of course, is that the American people will take a good, long look at the situation and decide who's right and who's wrong. But they don't. They just lose trust in the whole process, and everyone in it.

There aren't a lot of good answers to this. But the best is to do everything you can to avoid letting it drag out. Time is not the friend of reform. That's not because Americans understand the bill better, and grow to hate it. As recent polls show, the component parts of health-care reform remain popular, and even more amazing, they remain little-known.

But there's no presidential narrative that can impose shape on a year-long legislative brawl. No speeches that can overwhelm the daily stories, no strategies that can secure enthusiastic bipartisanship for a major legislative achievement that will help one party in the next election. Time emphasizes what Americans hate and distrust about the legislative process (which is, put simply, the workings of the legislative process), and that drives them away from the bill. If you can't make these efforts move quickly, then you have already lost the argument. A good message is not nearly so important as a fast process.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 3, 2010; 10:34 AM ET
Categories:  Congress , Government  
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Comments

Some admission of common ground on a given issue, by the leadership of both parties, would go a long way toward restoring faith in the system. When each issue is cast as an ideological battlefront, people's attention tends to shut down, being given a choice between 2 versions of reality, neither of which corresponds to their own.

Posted by: jduptonma | February 3, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, you are a poet. Well said!

Posted by: stsimons | February 3, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

"Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process."

First, disagreement suggests a functioning political process, to me. Lock-step unity over sweeping reform would be scarier. But, yes, dal-making signals there's something wrong with not just the political process, or not even the process at all, but with the legislation.

Most especially, deals that exempt certain states or certain special interests from the provisions of the very legislation votes are being purchased for suggests that everybody involved knows the bill is bad. If they have to promise immunity from certain provisions of the bill to Nebraska, that suggests that the overall effects are going to be negative, and they've got to promise to exempt certain groups and certain people from the effects of the legislation in order to pass it.

There may be good political and even policy reasons for these deals, but it looks terrible, in my opinion. I can understand buying votes with pork--it's seedy, yes, but that only reflects upon the legislation in question indirectly. Buying votes for a piece of legislation by promising that "this part and this part and this part won't apply to you, if you vote for it" makes it look like the legislation is bad for the country, and everybody voting on it knows it.

I'm not saying that's the case, just saying that it's the absolutely wrong way to go about getting votes.

That being said, a fast process is, in part, a function of lean bills. A shorter bill that focused on expanding coverage almost certainly could have passed. It's very difficult to execute a speedy legislative process on a 2000 page bill. At the very least, that 2000 pages of legislation has to be written. Then, in theory, the folks voting on it have to read at least some of it. Massiveness makes a fast process almost impossible.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

This is a good piece and hopefully more will be followed in this direction, simply because this is the kind of stuff (impact of 24/7 Media on legislative process & politics) I guess is done less generally or it does not reach to common public so easily.

You are right to say that "But there's no presidential narrative that can impose shape on a year-long legislative brawl." Not that Obama should not have narrative like Regan and for sure that will help; but we are in 2010s where Internet makes Media whole together a different matter.

Question is are Democrats learning something or are they still in 'stone age'? Pace of these Democrats (so tempted to deride them as 'these old lumbering Democrats' but then that will not be Politically Correct, so leaving that...) is as if they are operating in Jefferson's time where Congress used to take months to assemble while members were traveling in horse driven buggies.

I do not see any such sense of urgency there. Or is it really that there are no votes? Otherwise why in the world around 10 Centrist Democratic Senators are opposed to 'reconciliation route' when House can possibly pass the fix first waiting for Senate to accept it and then House passing the Senate bill?

Is the slow pace of Dems as a result of lack of votes or it is that they 'don't get that game has become fast'?

Posted by: umesh409 | February 3, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Every member of Congress from every political perspective has been beating up on this thing for a year. Some because it's in their political interests to kill it, others as a political tactic because they want leverage to make changes to it.

But the end result is EVERYBODY has been beating the crap out of this thing for a year.

And yet it still enjoys something like 40% support. That is a miracle.

And frankly, it shows how desperate the American people are to get this problem solved. A year of beating up on this thing, and support is still at 40%. Amazing.

Imagine how much higher support would be if it were passed and people got a chance to see that "death panels" didn't exist, but "end pre-existing exclusions" and "subsidies for small businesses and families" do exist.

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 3, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

". . .their PR strategy wasn't as good as it could have been. . ."

Airport security on 9/11/01 wasn't as good as it could have been.

Gimme a break! They had no PR strategy on HCR! That's why we're a year into this process with no law. When Sen. Baucus did not deliver a bill by recess last August, that should have been a signal to unleash a fierce comprehensive PR and ad campaign for healthcare reform - featuring the regular citizens who are suffering under the current system. They could have made regular people the centerpiece of such a campaign, and the propaganda broadcasted by the opposition party would not have taken hold as truth.

I've never seen such a miserable failure in PR strategy.

Posted by: mayelinden | February 3, 2010 11:08 AM | Report abuse

Are you saying that in a democratic system of governance, what we don't want is major policy being discussed and debated through our elected representatives, through the media, and around water coolers around the nation? Are you saying that we major encroachments by the govenment onto the liberty of the people to be made swiftly so that it evades a thorough debate? That is preposterous.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 3, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I will remind you that the meat of these bills was the individual mandate. Never before has the federal government required every individual to have purchased health insurance. That was NOT something that Candidate Obama discussed in the presidential campaign. This was a new policy proposal to the American public and it deserved a thorough debate.

Posted by: lancediverson | February 3, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I just heard Obama say to the democratic caucus, this morning, that the public is not interested in process or other such issues. They just "wanna know" "what's in it for me?". Oh, really??? He consistently takes the lowest view of public interest and motivation. He's not addressing the public as citizens worthy of respect and honesty. That would be the first "public relations" change he should make. I know I didn't only "wanna know" "what's in it for me." There are some people who might actually benefit from it but think it's bad for the country as a whole. Can you believe such people might exist? Obama can't.

Posted by: truck1 | February 3, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Shorter Ezra: it's mostly Baucus' and Reid's fault for the Senate Finance Committee/Gang of Six farce. Sounds about right.

Posted by: redwards95 | February 3, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Here how it would have done in any other country in the World:
The governing party leaders (say from White House, Senate, House, & a couple of Governors) meet in close doors and put together a plan. Each leader bring in the input from its body until they all agree on it. If they don't agree and can't have the votes, they go another route w.o any big harm. If they agree then they go public with it and start to sell it coherently. They give two weeks to get input from others and make small adjustments accordingly. Meanwhile the legislative Bill is written and after these two weeks the voting starts.
Since they all agreed from the outset, defections have such monumental consequences that they rarely occur.

Posted by: Yoni1 | February 3, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

It is clear that a substantial segment of the public, more than a majority, doesn't really understand how politics functions and doesn't like it when they see it. The GOP understands this and is taking advantage of it.

This is a zero-sum game for Dems. Dem partisans want more contrasts to be drawn, want Obama to be feistier. The GOP also wants more conflict. But conflict serves the GOP interest in turning people off to both politics and government, while it seems to damage the Dems. One more example of how it is much easier to be against change and governmental activism than for it.

I think Ezra is right that only relatively swift action can overcome this problem, giving people both a taste of debate but with action at the end. But since the GOP understands this, and so do the conservadems who also don't want change, there doesn't seem to be much prospect for solving our very serious problems (health care and resulting deficits, climate change, finacial instability, rising inequality, to name a few).

I really wonder whether the people who oppose government action on these problems really don't think they are problems (they like the status quo or at least think they can profit from it), or think they are problems, but somehow in spite of the past several years think the private sector can really solve everything.

Posted by: Mimikatz | February 3, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

There's a reason the legislative process is frequently compared to sausage-making: watching the details of the process can leave you with distaste for the final product. It is not a process designed for speed, and especially in the Senate, there are many things the minority can do to slow things down (which has the effect of killing legislation). I don't think the process, even if the rules are reformed, will ever keep pace with society's demand for instant answers or the 24-hour news cycle, and I'm not sure it should go that fast.

What is really interesting about the health care bill is that it doesn't contain a lot of new stuff. They took a lot of old ideas that have been kicking around in legislation for years (many with Republican support in the past), and put them all in one bill. They didn't need this long to consider the issues thoroughly, because they've been kicking around for years already. The main intent of the Republicans has been to slow it down at every turn, in an attempt to kill it. The Republicans have not been concerned at all with making good policy. When you have a minority party that is acting simply to obstruct, there's only so much you can do about speeding up the process. Until voters punish them for their obstruction, this danger will always lurk.

Posted by: reach4astar2 | February 3, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

"People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,"

...except Barack Obama, who associates reaching his goals with getting voted out("a really good one-term president").

Obama's goals are different from everyone else's. And that's why we should hope he fails.

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | February 3, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Dems intentionally allowed the health care process run on for over a year.

Why?

Because they never really wanted to fulfill what they had been running on for the past 50 years (health care reform), and by allowing the process to run on indefinitely they knew something would eventually come along and kill the effort in a way that would allow the Dems to blame it on the GOP. Little did they know that many progressives can see through their scheming.

Average Americans knew months ago that these idiotic and traitorous Democrats needed to get the bill passed more quickly.

Progressives need to vote out the Dem leadership, including all the Blue Dogs, even if that means voting in Republicans. Because only then will we weed out the imposters and the wolves in sheep clothing and eventually get true progressives in those seats.

I for one already have notified FL Senator Bill Nelson I will work against his re-election (no matter who runs against him). Why? Because he self-identifies as a Blue Dog. And even though he has indeed voted progressively at times, he also has voted with the GOP often enough for insightful people to realize he is trading votes with other Blue Dogs to lend him cover while at the same time enough Blue Dogs vote to advance right-wing policies (Bush tax cuts, Iraq War, medicare-D, bridge to nowhere, nafta, etc).

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 3, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

A good message can help achieve a fast process. By sending the message that all he wanted was a bill, any bill, Obama ensured that every element of healthcare reform was on the table and available for bargaining. This stretched out the process because there was that much more to dicker over.

If he'd said at the outset that the bill had to include X and Y in order to get his signature, he would have reduced the room for bargaining, and he would have sent a clearer message to the public that X and Y are what he intended to achieve.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

*conflict serves the GOP interest in turning people off to both politics and government, while it seems to damage the Dems.*

This is a fairly Democratic way of looking at things. People who care about politics aren't turned off to conflict. They're turned off to people who don't appear to care about what they believe in, and they're drawn to people who do believe something. Conflict aversion is a dangerous liberal affectation.

Posted by: constans | February 3, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

This is an argument for compromise bills that get large, bipartisan majorities, because those are the ones that can move quickly (and because that is what the public wants--bipartisan cooperation). The alternative is to try to jam through an unpopular bill as quickly as possible so you don't have to talk about it, which is a frighteningly undemocratic and elitist attitude.

Posted by: counterfactual | February 3, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Counterfactual:
"This is an argument for compromise bills that get large, bipartisan majorities, "

Except that the Republicans won't compromise. At all. The Dem bill IS a huge compromise of a compromise of a compromise.

Pretending that the problem here is that the Dems won't bend is just rank Broderism. A pox on both their houses, no matter what they've done!

Posted by: adamiani | February 3, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

MA was a referendum on healthcare that was held in the most Democratic state. For the like to assume that the reason why they will not get elected in 2010 and formerly in 1994 is because they did not pass this legislation is delusional. Just listen to the conversation Chris Matthews had with Howard Dean on Hardball MSNBC. Even Matthews knew that Dean's logic would not have passed the muster in a first grade debate team competition.

Posted by: kdieck | February 3, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The problem is the American public actually got a chance to see the sausage being made and they declined to partake of it.

To maintain -- as Mr. Obama does -- that it was a great bill but just poorly explained is an insult to our intelligence. We know what we saw: a pork-fest. When the Democratic senators realized that every vote was absolutely crucial then the price of every vote went sky high. You can't hide the deals like the ones cut for Louisiana and Nebraska.

To me, that's when the cart left the tracks in the public's eye. We wanted real reform but we got this Frankenstein's Monster instead.

Hibbing and Theiss-Morse are correct in this sense, except I think we are largely fed up with our elected officials, not the debate or the controversy. It appears that elected officials were looking out for themselves first, and this perception is not helped by the fact that they are proposing a system in which they themselves would not wish to participate.

Posted by: greywater | February 3, 2010 3:09 PM | Report abuse

On the other hand, presidential leadership can prevent it from becoming a year long brawl.

Supposing, of course, the existence of presidential leadership. Which at this precise moment could best be exerted by brokering a deal between House and Senate.

Sad.

Posted by: pj_camp | February 3, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Great job.

This is a good example of why I read your blog.

Posted by: gratis11 | February 3, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

@counterfactual

Leading to a world where the only legislation Congress ever passes are resolutions in favor of mothers and apple pie.

And even great bipartisan bills are slowed down, like the Unemployment bill that was filibustered 3 times and passed 97-0.

Posted by: etdean1 | February 3, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I have a better suggestion Ezra, just do the whole thing in secret and issue a mandate to the American people. Quick, sure and efficient. Just like a dictatorship. "Sometimes the American people don't know what's good for them," said our Divinely Anointed President, and to Diane Sawyer "There's legislative process taking place in Congress, and I am happy to own up to the fact that I have not changed Congress and how it operates the way I would have liked." Jean-Francois Revel called this "the totalitarian temptation," and it is the distinguishing mark of the Left. It's hard to believe that a man who thinks like Obama is the President of a democracy and a republic.

Posted by: RAPProds | February 3, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Adamiani:

"Except that the Republicans won't compromise. At all."

Not true. The Senate Finance Committee passed a bill with Olympia Snowe's vote that likely would have gotten the votes of several other moderates had it been moved as the Democrats' bill on the Senate floor (and even with only her vote the bill would have had 60 votes even with Scott Brown seated). Why didn't they just take the Finance Committee bill?

Posted by: counterfactual | February 4, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

etdean1:

"Leading to a world where the only legislation Congress ever passes are resolutions in favor of mothers and apple pie."

I think you mean, leading to a world where legislation that passes which is supported by the majority of the public. Isn't that how democracy is supposed to work? What's the alternative--ramming something the majority doesn't want down its throat?

Posted by: counterfactual | February 4, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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