Are policy concessions worth it?
By Dylan Matthews
Grist's David Roberts argues that a maximalist Democratic agenda, with few concessions to Republicans or centrist Democrats, would be popular:
Republicans have quite cannily figured out how to manipulate voters' heuristics. No matter what Democrats do or propose, Republicans meet it with maximal, united opposition, criticizing it as socialism, tyranny, or appeasement. They've accurately realized that all they have to do to render Democratic proposals controversial is refuse to support them.
As a consequence, no matter what Democrats do or propose, they'll have to deal with the optics of their proposals appearing partisan.
We live in post-truth politics: a political culture in which politics (public opinion and media narratives) have become almost entirely disconnected from policy (the substance of legislation). This obviously dims any hope of reasoned legislative compromise. But in another way, it can be seen as liberating. If the political damage of maximal Republican opposition is a fixed quantity -- if policy is orthogonal to politics -- then there is little point to policy compromises. They do not appreciably change the politics.
For Democrats shaping policy, this suggests a two-fold strategy. First, they should pull attention to issues and proposals where the political ground is already favorable, from broad stuff like financial reform to narrow bills on jobs and energy. Second, on those issues that are inevitably going to be controversial, aim for maximally effective policy and deal with the politics separately. In post-truth politics, attempting to change perceptions by weakening policy is a category mistake. Remember, no matter what shape a Democratic proposal takes -- a centrist health-care bill full of ideas Republicans supported just a year ago or a cap-and-trade system like the one first implemented under George H.W. Bush -- Republican opposition will be maximal.
This is true so far as it goes. I doubt there would be any more breathless cries of tyranny or socialism had Obama just signed a single-payer bill into law. But the problem isn't with voters; it's with Congress. Concessions like Obama's offshore oil drilling announcement, or any number of components of health-care reform, may not sway voters, but they give individual senators and representatives cover. It's easy to see this as members holding bills hostage to parochial concerns, and to some degree that's true. But offering a minor concession to a vulnerable senator, who can then go home and say they only voted for the bill after having fought to make it better, doesn't make for a bad trade. Whipping members from ideologically diverse constituencies is tough enough with a leadership willing to broker deals; removing that tool would only make the process more difficult.
Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.
Washington Post editor
April 1, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Barack Obama , Congress , Democrats
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