Thursday, February 25, 2010

Translated, from the Obama and McCain

Behind the fun of the McCain/Obama back-and-forth today was something I find fairly interesting.  They both say that they want to change the way Washington works, but they mean completely different things.

John McCain wants to change the way Washington works.  What he doesn't like is a system in which various groups come together and, through their elected officials, bargain to reach a conclusion they can all live with.  Instead, he thinks that everyone should simply do whatever is in the public interest.

Barack Obama wants to change the way Washington works.  What he doesn't like is a system in which politicians mostly speak in spin and poll-tested talking points.  Politicians, he thinks, should just say what they mean.

Completely different things.  For what it's worth, I believe that both of these positions sound good to the American people, but both positions are wrong.  Spin is mostly harmless, and the stuff that McCain doesn't like is essential to democracy.  But, regardless of whether they're correct or not, that's what they mean.

McCain also seems to believe that since they were the two presidential candidates, Washington should now be doing whatever things either of them advocated in the campaign.  That, however, is another topic altogether.


  1. I think you understate the corrosiveness of "political spin" or the permanent campaign. It seems to me that the public does not like the visible sausage making process in Congress, the spin and permanent campaigning, but they tend to like the end results of the policy process: actual policy produced by negotiation and compromise.

    And I think you miss Obama's point. You reduce Obama's point to politicians saying what they mean. But, Obama's point is that the focus on messaging and spin has seemingly short-circuited the policy process, preventing compromise, making actual governing results almost impossible.

  2. How do you make sausage without sausage-making?

    How do you compromise if there is no overlap in preferences?

  3. Your takedown of McCain here reflects something I've been thinking a lot about lately, which is that Americans are relatively uncomfortable with the plain fact that politics is an arena where people of different interests come together and hash it out. Instead the emphasis is all on what the "right" policy is -- to say that your own group is disadvantaged by what might otherwise be a good bill is considered out of bounds, which distorts the claims people make.

    By the way, this is the quasi-defense for the ... what is normally called the racist underpinnings of the Republican Party. Once you realize that white nativists who were objectively disadvantaged by the Civil Rights Movement had a right to organize and push against that movement, their "racism" becomes a lot less interesting. Also racists in terms of politics come to seem like just another interest group like Catholics or the pro-Israeli lobby or teachers or something -- who cares? Let them argue, let them be wrong, let them be outvoted by people who find them distasteful. Taking the "I have the correct policy!!" out of their formulations renders them less powerful, not more powerful. They're just an interest group.

    One further note on racism: there's tons of ink spilt about whether Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or Senator X or Rep. Y is "actually" racist when they utter or vote for some absurdity. This is related to the same problem -- one's personal opinions are of zero interest, when one speaks of politics. It's the functional part that matters. Yglesias and Chait had a discussion on bloggingheads in March in which they went back and forth about the propriety of assessing people's levels of racism, and Yglesias couldn't..... quite..... get to the point of saying that it's all immaterial. The Republicans should be opposed because they're functionally racist, not because anyone in the party believes any proposition about anything. They profit by it, that's how you know it's functional.


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