The primacy of process
"Yesterday," Josh Marshall writes, "I did a handful of posts about how Hill Democrats seem much less adept at mixing politics and policy together than their Republican counterparts."
This crystallized something I've been struggling to put into words. We tend to think in terms of politics and policy. Politics is the so-called "outside game." The speeches, the ads, the press releases, the interviews, the grassroots and all the rest of it. "Policy" is, well, policy.
But this neglects an element I've come to think of as at least as important as the other two: Process. This is a serious oversight.
It's process that drives some of the crucial policy decisions. If Democrats had been able to hold their caucus on procedural votes, they could have kept the public option. If they had rejected Max Baucus's Gang of Six, they'd have passed health-care reform three months ago, and there'd be no question of paring the bill back or splitting it up.
Process is also the subject of most media stories, which means it drives public perceptions, and thus the outside game. Obama is rarely asked to respond to substantive policy questions about, say, the precise mix of subsidies. Instead, it's a lot of "would you support reconciliation?" "What's the deadline?" "Have you spoken with the Speaker?" "Do you agree with Olympia Snowe that the process is being rushed?"
In the book “Stealth Democracy” (which I previously blogged on here), John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that voters have very weak policy preferences. Indeed, you can get a lot of people to change their mind on policy by asking them whether, thinking through the potential consequences of that policy, they'd like to change their mind. You can get even more of them to change their mind if you pay them a compliment first.
Which makes sense. People don't know very much about policy. The twist in Hibbing and Theiss-Morse's argument, however, is that people do know quite a bit about process, or feel they do, and in contrast to their weak policy preferences, they have very strong process preferences. The strongest among them is the belief that the people sent to do the people's work shouldn't be working on behalf of special interests, which explains the fury over the Nelson deal. Similarly strong is the aversion to partisan conflict, as most people think that these problems have common-sense solutions, and too much conflict suggests the two parties are deviating from that middle path.
The point is that process is, arguably, as important as politics or policy. But it's not managed with the same ferocious attention as the other two. And that's a mistake, because it poisons everything else. I don't think that Democrats made critical political mistakes in the health-care reform fight, and I think their policy decisions were defensible. But they made a number of terrible process errors, from letting Max Baucus spend three months playing footsie with the Gang of Six to holding their concessions for the end of the process rather than running through them at the beginning.
I should be clear here: I'm not saying Harry Reid made these mistakes. Ben Nelson deserves the blame for dealing at the end rather than the beginning. But he's paying for it now, and so too are his colleagues. What's clear, I think, is that the party as a whole didn't start with a consensus understanding of the importance of a smooth process. They did, conversely, agree on the necessity of passing a bill. So people made all sorts of painful compromises in that direction, but no one ever gave up anything for an easy process. And now we're here.
The moderates and the liberals alike would have been better off if they'd taken their pound of flesh at the beginning and then ushered the bill through smoothly. But none of them want to do that because they like to believe that they’re skilled legislators and they like to believe the process improves the legislation. I see little evidence for either premise, but there's plenty of evidence that the process makes the public hate the legislation.
Photo credit: By Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press
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