Monday, January 25, 2010

Goo Goos and Actually Getting Things Done

Ezra Klein had three excellent items this morning; I want to add them up and reach a conclusion.

1.  Citing Frances Lee, Ezra notes that the president's opponents are going to oppose whatever legislation he proposes; that's the nature of partisan politics these days.

2.  Ezra cites a reader on the 1977 Clear Act Amendments to make the point that dealmaking and logrolling is SOP when it comes to legislating.

3. And Ezra reads Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, who find that Americans tend to want Good Government procedures -- in particular, Americans don't like self-interest.

What do we have here?  Regardless of how Obama and the Democrats proceeded, it's very likely that Republicans would oppose them.  In order to pass anything, a certain amount of dealmaking was inevitable.  People who looked at the dealmaking wouldn't like it.  And lo and behold, that's the story of both the stimulus bill and the health care bill.

The only way Obama could have prevented that reaction, then would have been to not proceed at all.  But that would have been a more more significant political error.  On the stimulus (and don't forget -- Obama's approval ratings fell at least as much during the time that the stimulus was the big item in the news; he's been almost totally stable since mid or early August), Obama and his economic team clearly believed that the bill was important for the economy, and if they were right the effects were far more important for Obama's eventual popularity than any short-term hits while passing it.  On the health care bill, Obama's hand was forced by his campaign, which certainly had placed health care reform front-and-center on his agenda; that in turn was forced by nomination politics, because Democrats in general consider health care to be front-and-center on their agenda (health care also has the advantage of unanimity among Democratic-friendly groups, unlike such issues as energy/climate, or immigration.  Not all Dems and not all Democratic interest groups want the same things on health care, but all of them want some form of a bill.  Not so with energy, or immigration).  In other words, taking the hits from legislating was the least-bad course of action for Barack Obama this year, and would have been so far any Democrat who could have been nominated for president, given the circumstances.

I should add one thing.  If Americans in general don't like dealmaking and self-interest, I think it's fair to say that journalists double down on that.  Goo Goo bias is far more pervasive -- and, more importantly, far more the basis for action -- than is any other type of ideological bias, because Goo Goo (Good Government) bias is far closer to the core mission of journalists, as they see themselves.  Post-Watergate, people have become reporters so that they, too, could uncover nefarious plots and hidden, backroom deals.  The idea that backroom deals could be benign just wouldn't occur to most (not all, but most) reporters.  And while most liberal reporters for mainstream news outlets believe that doing their job well requires them to put aside their positions on public policy issues such as tax rates, abortion, or gun control, they do not believe that they should put aside their sense that acting on the basis of self-interest is a bad thing when done by politicians or interest groups.  At least, that's been the view of virtually all the reporters I've ever talked to, and all the reporters I've read who talk about their views on such things.

Of course, all of this puts a tremendous strain on anyone who wants to get anything done in the American political system, which is structured to give incentives to everyone involved to cut the best deal they can.  The important thing for such people to keep in mind is that at the end of the day, no one is going to hate the health care bill because of how it was passed; six months from now, if the Democrats manage to get the bill done, all anyone is going to care about is whether it actually helps them or not, and that's certainly going to be true farther down the road.  As much as they hate back-room deals, no reporter feels it necessary to remind us of them once a bill gets to the implementation stage.  So, for politicians, the hits they're going to take at this stage are both unavoidable and no reason to avoid getting things done, as long as the things being done are really worth doing.

1 comment:

  1. "Not all Dems and not all Democratic interest groups want the same things on health care, but all of them want some form of a bill. Not so with energy"

    I beg to differ: Practically all Dems and practically all Democratic interest groups want a bill to prevent catastrophic climate change.

    This is because almost all Democratic interest groups pay some attention to science and reality, and you have to be completely delusional to *not* want a bill to prevent catastrophic climate change.

    Hopefully we'll get one.

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