Saturday, September 26, 2009

Cover Me

Greg Sargent yesterday noticed that people apparently get that Republicans are following a rejectionist strategy, but nevertheless think that Democrats should be compromising. Matt Yglesias correctly explains that this sort of finding:
mostly re-demonstrates the familiar result that outside a fairly narrow band of questions the public doesn’t necessarily have detailed, stable, and coherent opinions. That these two views don’t really make much sense together suggests that a substantial swathe of the population just hasn’t thought these questions through very thoroughly.
He concludes, then, that all that matters is whether health care reform actually works, and that Democrats therefore shouldn't care about getting a handful of Republican votes:
A bill that’s bipartisan enough to be supported by the opposition party leadership (like TARP or to some extent the Iraq authorizing vote) probably does buy you some political cover by actively compromising your potential critics. But it’s hard to see what difference one diffident minority legislator or four or zero or two is going to make.
I think that's partially correct -- it's certainly true that mass publics don't pay much attention to procedure details -- but there's another dimension to this that Yglesias doesn't capture here. Mass publics don't have "real" (that is, well-formed and carefully considered) opinions about these things, but political elites do pay a lot of attention, and they do form opinions. And those opinions can affect the behavior of other elites, and if they're broadcast enough they can eventually affect mass opinion and behavior.

That is: people such as David Broder and David Gergen do form opinions about these things, and those opinions eventually filter down -- not in detailed form, but in the general sense, for example, that Ben Nelson is or isn't just another liberal. Moreover, even if these opinions don't filter down, pols act as if they do. So marginal Democrats are more likely to draw a strong Republican opponent if "everyone knows" that those Democrats have gone Washington and aligned themselves with a Pelosi- and Schumer- led effort, than if "everyone knows" that the marginal Democrats have pushed the bill towards the center. And the handful of Republican votes, or in lieu of that the obvious attempts to compromise, help to build that impression.

Now, it's also true that these sorts of effects, while real, are mostly around the margins, and that Members of Congress tend to be incredibly risk-averse, and therefore overreact to what are in reality fairly small threats. But that's as much the real world as are mass publics indifference to most of what goes on in Washington, so we're left with, in the real world, the search for bipartisan cover of some sort matters quite a bit.

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