Thursday, October 21, 2010

Get the Politics Right

Gotta take issue with something that Ezra Klein said about the stealth tax cut:
It's a story that reflects both positively and negatively on the administration. The positive side is that they sacrificed politics and messaging for good policy. They were willing to forgo the headlines and the chance to force Republicans to own something if it meant improving the economy. The negative side, of course, is that it doesn't seem to have worked (emphasis added).
Now, if all he meant was either that Barack Obama is wise to ignore the daily news cycle and pay attention to long-term effects, that's fine -- or if he meant that in this case, Barack Obama was smart to realize that the best thing for him and his party politically was to get the economy moving, and that would (again, politically) be far more important than whatever short-term spin that they could achieve, again I would agree.  However:

Presidents should definitely not be treating politics as an ugly necessity, or even worse as something that craven politicians might indulge in but that really is beneath their own exalted selves.  That's Jimmy Carter talk.  Presidents are in the business of politics.  That's true in the democratic sense of keeping constituents happy, and it's also true in the sense that a president's influence is achieved by mastering politics, both in Washington and out. 

If pressed, I'd probably say: get the politics right, and you'll get the policy right.  But I'm sure of one thing: get the politics wrong, and it doesn't matter what policy you want, because it ain't gonna happen anyway.  Probably not now, and certainly not in the long run. 

7 comments:

  1. The positive side is that they sacrificed politics and messaging for good policy.

    Pretty sure he meant "short-term politics" or maybe something more nebulous like "optics"

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  2. You've missed the point. If, like the Bush administration, they had sent a letter and then a cheque saying here is your tax cut, the proportion of the tax cut saved, rather than spent, would have been greater. Since the idea is to promote spending this would have been less than optimal. Instead, for the "stealth tax cut" the amount withheld from each pay was lessened, increasing the liklihood that people, not noticing the tax cut, would spend more of it.

    It worked -people didn't notice the tax cut.

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  3. "That's Jimmy Carter talk."

    Increasingly, that's whom I think of when I think of Obama. Not on any trite theory of "Carter was bad, Obama is bad, hence Obama is like Carter," but the same talent for alienating one's own party in the interest of a supposed idealism. I think we all expected Obama to be a competent politician -- he gave that great speech! he'll be our Great Communicator!. Increasingly, it seems he's not.

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  4. ("Who" not "whom." Hypercorrection. Sorry.)

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  5. Julien, I can understand the frustration, but I think Obama's very different from Carter in that regard. Despite much more militant opposition from the minority party, Obama's accomplishments in his first two years far exceed Carter's.

    As for the tax cut, Johnny Canuck, I think there's a pretty good argument to be made that the political advantage lost by not sending a tax refund check exceeded the policy advantage of having the refund hidden and therefore spent more fully.

    There's a story about FDR wanting to make sure everyone got a Social Security card with their own number on it, so that they would feel like Social Security was something they owned, like a bank account. That's an example of good politics strengthening good policy.

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  6. massappeal: "I think there's a pretty good argument to be made that the political advantage lost by not sending a tax refund check exceeded the policy advantage of having the refund hidden and therefore spent more fully."

    This may be true, but political and policy advantages are moving in opposite directions. In your FDR example, I don't see any policy reason not to distribute the social security cards, while for Obama, what you see as the politically more astute move would have hurt the policy purpose of the tax cut.

    Obama is being hurt on this issue because of his intellectual integrity, or political naivity, depending from which angle you view it.

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  7. I'm pretty sure I wrote this one badly, because my point isn't getting across. In the case of the stealth tax cut, if it had worked -- if downplaying it had in fact boosted the economy -- then the politics of it say to keep it stealthy, because politically it's better to have a stronger economy than to win a few news cycles. On other policies, the politics of it might be different. Pay attention to politics definitely does not mean trying to win every news cycle, but it does mean that what works politically (properly understood) will usually mean good policy.

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