Thursday, January 21, 2010

Punishing "Them"

Ezra Klein, no hot-head he normally, has just about reached the limits of his frustration.
Part One from Ezra, yesterday:
The fundamental pact between a political party and its supporters is that the two groups believe the same thing and pledge to work on it together...If Democrats let go of health care, there is no doubt that a demoralized Democratic base will stay home in November. And that's as it should be. If the Democratic Party won't uphold its end of the bargain, there's no reason its base should pretend the deal is still on.

and Part Two, today:
But at the end of the day, this is all speculation. My basic position is that politics is a marketplace like any other, and preferences need to be known. If Democrats decide to drop something this important to the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings because they lost a special election in Massachusetts, they should be punished in the sole way this marketplace allows.
It's not my place to criticize the emotional reaction -- frustration, anger, whatever.  But I can think about the logic Ezra is proposing, and it just doesn't work.

Ezra talks about a bargain between voters and a "party."  But, at least in American politics, it doesn't quite work like that.  Ezra made no bargain with Nancy Pelosi.  He made no deal with Bart Stupak.  He made no deal with Heath Shuler, Dan Boren, and the other twenty-one Dems who voted yes on Stupak, and no on the bill.  All of those people, collectively, are the Democrats who Ezra feels betrayed him, but in fact that's not what will happen, should the bill not pass.  Hmmm...I guess I need to break down some possibilities.

1.  The Democratic leadership in the House and the White House try their best to get the House to pass the Senate bill, but fall short because they can't get the votes of the most conservative Democrats.  Ezra, then, was betrayed not by "the Democrats," but by people who probably barely campaigned on and didn't promise to vote for health care.  That's not exactly a betrayal.  Liberal voters (or out of state contributors who support such candidates) are left with what they knew going in.  The bargain they're making is that those Members of Congress will vote to organize the House, and to otherwise vote with the Dems more often than a Republican from their districts would have, and...that's about it.

2.  The Democratic leadership in the House and the White House try their best to get the House to pass the Senate bill, but fall short because they can't get the votes of the most liberal Democrats.  Should that happen, it's not so much that Ezra was betrayed, but that (as a liberal himself) he lost the internal battle with other liberals.  That is, there clearly are some liberals who believe that anything short of an unobtainable single-payer bill is worse than the status quo.  Ezra (sensibly, in my view), disagrees.  But if he loses that fight, it's not because politicians broke their promises to liberals.  It's because Ezra lost out to other liberals. 

3.  The Democratic leadership in the House and the White House give up on health care, because they're scared of the Republicans.  If that's the case, then the problem here isn't that the leadership is duplicitous; it's that they're stupid.  I fully agree with everyone who says that for the party as a whole, it's far too late to back off health care.  If the Democratic leadership disagrees, then what's needed isn't fewer Democrats; it's different Democratic leaders.  Purge the House leadership, purge the White House staff -- or, at least, the first step would be to call for such changes.  But remember that under this condition, it's just the leadership at fault -- if they have the votes but won't act on it -- then it's not the rank-and-file Democrats in the House who have betrayed Democratic voters (I'll try to make this less personal).  It makes no sense to punish rank-and-file Democrats, although it would be reasonable to make new leadership a condition for continuing to support them.

4.  The Democratic leadership and the White House (and perhaps rank-and-file Members as well) give up on health care because they're secretly in the tank for nefarious corporations...OK, that's betrayal.  If Democrats campaigned on health care but never intended to get it done, then Ezra has a good case, and Democratic voters are justified in wishing to punish their elected officials. 

The thing is, I don't think that Ezra believes that #4 (deliberate betrayal) is really what's going on.  Indeed, the evidence seems overwhelming that if only 60K voters in Massachusetts had swung the other way, we'd be moving to a final vote in both Houses within the next couple of weeks. 

So that leaves the other three options.  None of them, in my view, are correctly labeled as betrayal.  The first is about liberals not having the votes, and the second and third are about liberals (rank-and-file Members in one case, the leadership in the other) making poor decisions.  In each case, the answer is not to go home and sulk; it's to renew the fight, and try again to win.

Of course, this is all highly speculative; I think a lot of liberal analysis right now is in full-blown panic mode, just waiting for elected officials to sell them out.  See, for example, this overheated reaction from Josh Marshall to a fairly innocuous comment from Nancy Pelosi.  Jonathan Chait had it right: it's going to take a few days for everyone to relax a little, look around, and start thinking about how they really want to proceed.  He was talking about elected officials, but it sure looks to me as if it applies at least as much to the pundits and bloggers.


  1. Way to make a complete strawman argument in point #2:

    That is, there clearly are some liberals who believe that anything short of an unobtainable single-payer bill is worse than the status quo.

    Really, there are liberal Congresspersons that believe that, are saying that, and vote this way? Are you really saying that the next logical step from single-payer is the Senate bill?

    Could you allow for the possibility that a liberal like Ezra might think that there's enough value in the Senate bill to pass it, while another liberal might think it's just bad enough to make the bill bad for the nation? Why would Ezra immediately have to transfer his anger from the conservative Dems and the incompetent leadership that brought us the Senate bill to the liberals?

    I'm also curious as to why in point #3 you suggest disappointed Dems call for a change in House and/or White House leadership. Isn't it the Senate leadership that let a year of filibuster-proof caucus go down the drain? Wasn't it the lack of leadership in the Senate that resulted in Lieberman and Nelson holding up the plan and crapping it up enough that nothing can be done with it?

  2. You are right that Erza overreaches. The punishment should be more targeted: To pledge not to vote for, or give to, any member who does not support a health bill at least as comprehensive as the Senate bill. This does not require turning one's back on a whole party; one can vote in a primary for someone other than the incumbent.


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