Sunday, August 23, 2009

Once More on the Value of Pointless Negotiations

Yglesias says:
Sometimes to advance a progressive agenda, you might need to embrace some politically dicey ideas. Then you might hope that you could acquire some political cover from members of the opposite party. Of course they won’t just do that to be nice, so you make some substantive ideological concessions to the right. You propose, for example, a health care package that would raise taxes and extend coverage to the uninsured (woo liberals!) but also slow the rate of growth in Medicare, hoping that some substantial number of conservatives will find the latter attractive.

If instead conservatives choose to reject the deal, not put any other ideas forward, and instead characterize the Medicare idea as a secret plot to euthenize grandma then it seems to me the country will have a problem.

I'm with him up to that last bit. It's not that the "country will have a problem." It's that the politicians who need some political cover have a problem -- the most clearly recognized cover is votes from the other party, and that isn't available. Unfortunately, the norms of politics are hard to this case, odds are pretty good that Washington scorekeepers (reporters, but they also listen to other long-time Washingtonians) probably know, on some level, that Republicans are using a "Just Say No" strategy, but the norms of Washington don't really have way to recognize that only one party is willing to be reasonable.

What's needed is to change the norms of political cover. That's a good reason for the Baucus negotiations, I think. The more that Republicans are forced to admit that they have no interest in compromise -- the more that they explicitly say that their goal is to undermine the president -- the more the press should be willing to admit what most liberals have believed from the start. Of course, it also means that sooner or later the Democrats will have to throw up their hands in disgust and move a bill forward without GOP support.

Unfortunately for liberals, this also means that the impulse to just go ahead with a purist bill isn't going to work, even though a "compromise" bill doesn't actually involve a compromise. That's because there just aren't enough votes for something that will be seen as a straightforward liberal bill.

The battle, then, is to (1) make it as clear as possible that the final bill is a reasonable, moderate bill even though it will get no GOP support, and (2) to define "reasonable, moderate" to include a variety of positions that the Democrats want. That's why it's well worth it for Democrats to push back hard against crazy things the Republicans say. The audience isn't voters; it's Serious People in Washington, who have to be convinced not only that specific crazy things are crazy (fairly easy), but that it's okay for them to report that Republican objections are not to be taken seriously because Republicans have gone off the deep end (very, very hard).


  1. The one problem I see here is that the mainstream media (Washington scorekeepers, Serious People) are much harder to convince than they should be. Actually, in a perfect world, perhaps they couldn't be convinced, because they would think for themselves. But I no longer believe that it's fairly easy to convince them that specific crazy things are crazy.

  2. I don't think that's right. The mainstream media knows that death panels isn't true, but the rules say that you're not just allowed to call the recent nominee for Vice President of a major party nuts without a whole lot of provocation.

    FWIW, I like those rules. There's plenty of trouble when reporters think for themselves; that's for actors -- that's how we get junk like the importance of sacrifice for its own sake.


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