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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.

By Washington Post editor  |  April 1, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Congress , Democrats  
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Comments

Not sure "post truth" politics are as useful to the party in power. Opponents in the minority seem to get something of a pass on extreme rhetoric that majority party pols don't get. I think ultimately bomb throwing remains a priviledge of the out party.

Posted by: jeroldduquetteorg | April 1, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Begging to differ:

"I doubt there would be any more breathless cries of tyranny or socialism had Obama just signed a single-payer bill into law."

We'll never know, because it's a counterfactual. But I could imagine orders of magnitude more vehemence in this case.

On the merits of moving to center pre-emptively: it's true that doing so does not forestall Republican denunciations. But that doesn't mean that doing so doesn't influence perceptions in the center - including with the voters whom centrist Democrats are trying to mollify.

Posted by: sprung4 | April 1, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Starting with a compromise position only moves the center farther into rightwingnutistan. How can conservadems say that they fought for centrist proposals when Obama already beat them to it. To make this claim, they have to make the proposal EVEN MORE CONSERVATIVE! This is what happened with the stimulus bill. Obama started with a centrist, too small, bill and republicans and conservadems cut even more out of it and made more of it tax cuts and tax credits, the least effective way to stimulate the economy. We are seeing a repeat of this on energy.

BTW, when do progressives get some cover from Obama when their constituents scream for more progressive programs to fix say the unprecedented high unemployment rate, the flood of foreclosures, the corporate tax structure that allows companies like Boeing to post billion dollar profits and yet pay no corporate tax, or the huge military industrial complex and accompanying budget busting "defense" department? Inquiring minds want to know....

I know that Obama is a centrist, but he only caters to the right and leaves the DFH crown out in the cold. A centrist should stay in the center and not allow the center to drift right with every new proposal.

Posted by: srw3 | April 1, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

"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. "

Except that the Prez seems to have this Republican trait well trianglated.

He makes an offer, they either deal or refuse to deal, the bill goes to the House and Senate, the R's all vote no, and now, in November, they get to ruin on their no votes. While simultaneously trying to take credit for any part of the bill that seems popular. While running on repealing the whole bill and starting over. While calling Obama a Socialist and a Tyrant for getting a popular bill passed.....
And they never seem to figure it out, that Obama has built their recalcitrance into his plans, using it against them at every opportunity.

SO, if, by the first of October, the economy has created a million jobs and is looking like it will continue to make jobs,

AND

The provisions of HCR that have already taken effect are quite popular, and the provisions that are just down the road are eagerly anticipated,

AND

The Banks that we saved have mostly been reprivatized with the result of billions in profits to the Treasury,

AND most of the troops are out of Iraq anmd Afghanistan is seeing stability as the Taliban get driven into the Tribal Areas, killed, or forced to reassimilate into Afghan society,
AND...

All those vociferous NO-P-ers running on their record of intransigence may not find a particularly sympathetic audience,

AND

Given a much more cooperative Congress in November, when the R's lose enough Senate seats that even a couple D defections on cloture can't protect a filibuster, and Obama REALLY gets his way,

Just what besides her deep connection to the 15% of the electorate that is sure that the whole Waste Water Treatment Facility at Wasilla smells like sarsaparilla is likely to get ANYONE to vote for her and her party?

Posted by: ceflynline | April 1, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Lets not get ahead of ourselves, even the most deft political maneuvering on the part of the president and/or the Democratic party isn't going to lead to gains in Senate seats. Right now it's just a hope to limit losses. The real fun begins when the Republicans pick up 2-6 seats and not even a "D's + Maine" coalition can get anything done.

Post does make a key distinction: the targets for political support from now until 2010 aren't voters per se, they're swing Senators.

Posted by: etdean1 | April 1, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

@ ceflynline: Given a much more cooperative Congress in November, when the R's lose enough Senate seats that even a couple D defections on cloture can't protect a filibuster, and Obama REALLY gets his way,

I want some of whatever you are smoking. There is not a reputable pollster on either side of the aisle that thinks that Dems add seats in the house or senate during the midterms. If you have information to the contrary, please provide it. I usually depend on 538.com as the most unbiased look at aggregate polling. He states:

But since so much attention has been focused on the potentially catastrophic losses for the Democrats, let's pause for a moment to consider their upside case. How many seats could they lose while still having the midterms be a "win" for them?

Obviously, there are some overly literal ways to interpret this question. One could say that so long as the Democrats lost any seats at all, it would still be a "loss". Or, one could say that so long as they preserve their majorities by one seat, it would still be a "win".

A better way to interpret this question might be: how many seats can the Democrats lose while still having the chance to advance the key components of their agenda? In the Senate, I have argued, the number is probably about 3, as a 56-seat Democratic majority

The best case Nate gives is limiting the losses in the senate.

Posted by: srw3 | April 1, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Roberts is basically saying to forget about making policies popular with the voters and just pass what can be passed. The problem is that that's exactly what happened with the health care bill, and now many legislators' seats are in jeopardy because the voting public is unhappy. Why would any legislator sign up for that?

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 1, 2010 1:25 PM | Report abuse

@ tomtildrum,

Those seats were in jeopardy well before HCR. The voting public is most unhappy about unemployment, which is always the greatest factor in anti-incumbent sentiment.

Also, I would hope that ALL legislators would sign up for a job in which policy, and not electability, is the priority. I don't believe that's true, far from it, but that's the ideal.

Posted by: etdean1 | April 1, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I"m so confussed. I guess we'll just have to sit back and see what happens. I personally think this is a small step in the right direction. I don't think this plan is the cure all but lets give it a chance. I will admit that this new change scares me but maybe there's light at the end of the tunnel. This cartoon graphic says it all... check it out. http://www.typobounty.com/Funny/Health_Care_Refo rm2.htm

Posted by: sarita1111 | April 1, 2010 11:50 PM | Report abuse

"I doubt there would be any more breathless cries of tyranny or socialism had Obama just signed a single-payer bill into law."

When John Boehner calls the ACA "Armageddon," I agree that it is difficult to imagine how the rhetoric on the right could have been any more hysterical.

But I think that misses the point.

The real difficulty with pushing anything truly progressive remains the 60 vote supermajority requirement in the Senate. What can pass with 51 votes and what can pass when 60 are needed are enormously different.

Unless the filibuster is dismantled at the beginning of the next Congress, one can continue to expect that any Democratic legislation will pass the Senate only when it has been significantly compromised in the conservative direction, even if that legislation receives virtually no support from the Republicans in the final vote.

Posted by: Patrick_M | April 5, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

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