Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Garnished with Lark's Vomit

Here's Greg Sargent:
The specifics of the argument aside, the skirmishing over Reid’s role is, at bottom, a bitter intra-party battle over who’s to blame for the failure of the Dem caucus to maintain a level of unity that Republicans had no trouble mustering when in the majority.
There's a fundamental misunderstanding of the era of politics running from 1981 to 2006, or 2008, but especially the Bush years -- the idea that Republicans got whatever they wanted during those years. It just isn't true (I talked about it here, piling on this excellent post from Ezra Klein).

To add to that, there's a reason that Republicans were able to seem fairly unified during the Bush years, which is that they chose an all-dessert, all-the-time, course of action. For domestic policy, tax cuts and spending increases; in foreign policy, wars that were sold as cost-free. This made Republicans (and conservatives) who really cared about governing the nation quite upset, and more importantly it yielded all sorts of public policy disasters. But it was great for party unity!

Of course Democrats are finding it hard to govern. Governing is difficult. If Democrats had as their goal to pass things with large majorities, they'd be taking a very different approach. They could go for once-a-year increases in the minimum wage (always a very popular position). On health care, they could emulate the GOP and pass a bill with lots of benefits and no funding. They could follow what Republicans now are advising by forcing insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions without mandating coverage to everyone (a recipe for complete collapse of the system, since no one would bother getting insurance until after they needed benefits).

Democrats are not, I don't think, doing the hard work of governing because they're inherently better people or more responsible than Republicans; they're doing it because their constituents are different than Republican constituents -- basically, they are organized around real problems that call for complex solutions. (Yes, there are plenty of Republicans with real problems, of course, but the GOP isn't organized around those sorts of things). The incentives, in short, are different.

But I also think there was something unusual about the particular set of politicians that led Congress and the White House earlier in this decade and, in Congress, back into the previous decade. Remember the Contract with America? Naturally, Republicans are still bragging about it now. There's something a little odd about that, though, since many items never became law. Except that's not what Republicans promised -- and it's not what they're bragging about now. Check it out:
Six weeks before the 1994 midterm elections, 367 Republican congressional candidates pledged to hold votes in the U.S. House of Representatives for a series of reforms. Called the Contract with America, this initiative was in effect a national campaign platform for congressional races around the nation...House Republicans delivered on their promise to bring each element of the contract up for a vote within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress.
Not: we passed things and they made America better. Nope. We brought them up for a vote. That's it. That's what they're bragging about.

And that's the way of thinking that led to an unfunded expansion of Medicare, and magic tax cuts that would pay for themselves, and a war that was going to pay for itself. Again, if you can recruit a whole bunch of pols who buy into that way of thinking, yup, you can keep them united as long as you stick with dessert-only. (And, again, there's nothing inherently conservative or Republican about any of this; while I do think there are some inherent incentive issues, I also think it's particular to one specific group of actors).

Democrats, to their credit, are eating their spinach. That yields real fights; more importantly, it produces real collective action problems because very few pols want to be on the hook for serving up spinach; they'd much rather just serve the dessert.

And this is why its hard for Democrats to be unified, or at least to be unified very easily. Dessert-only doesn't need compromise, but real governing does. Liberals, of course, have every right to fight for their slice of the pie (their share of brussels sprouts? I'm afraid I've lost the metaphor), but they might want to recognize that the difficulty of the fight is a good sign, not a bad one, about all of the players.


  1. Shorter version of your post; pandering is easy, governing is hard. Republicans pander, Democrats govern.

    I'll agree this is true about GWB and perhaps Republicans since 1992 or so, but even as a loyal Democrat I have to admit that Bush 41 and Reagan (yeah, I know, polluting trees and all that) both took governing plenty seriously. A few years in the wilderness and the Republicans will again find the virtues of seriousness.

  2. I agree about G. H. W. Bush, and more or less about Reagan.

    I don't think "pander" is what I'm talking about, though. Pandering implies that you're actually trying to do something for a constituency -- Democrats (and traditional Republicans) do plenty of that. I don't see that as the primary thrust of the Newt/W. GOP Yes, tax cuts fit. But not stuff like security theater, or even DOMA. It's all symbols and fluff, and short-term stuff that isn't even likely to last two years, let alone long term.

  3. Good point. Pandering is not the right word. Government theater?

    BTW, saw your blog only recently, I think it is very good and you have an interesting voice. Particurly welcome is the poly-sci viewpoint that prefers to describe and is light on the moralizing.


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