Monday, February 8, 2010

Why Gimmicks Matter

Most commentators, myself included, seem to think that Barack Obama's televised health care summit is a good idea.  Brendon Nyhan gets to play the contrarian on this one:
[T]he meeting is an obviously phony PR stunt... Obama is raising expectations for genuine bipartisanship, but it's not going to happen -- the odds of important policy changes coming out of the meeting are virtually nil. If House Democrats then go ahead and pass the Senate bill plus a reconciliation package on a party-line vote, the press will again surely note the contrast between Obama's rhetoric and the realities of legislating in a highly partisan Congress. Is this stunt really worth a delay of more than two weeks? 
I agree, as I said earlier today, that this is a public relations gimmick.   But surely presidents should engage in public relations gimmicks, as long as they don't substitute for substance.  I don't see that as a problem here.  I would be shocked if Obama intends this to be a way to retreat from the pass-and-patch plan that's been the obvious next step since the Massachusetts returns came in.  As I've repeated, I think that the incentives are for the House to just go ahead and pass the Senate bill (and then the reconciliation patch), but it's obvious that for whatever reasons, Nancy Pelosi is finding it difficult to put together the votes for that strategy. 

Let's go back to basics.  Marginal Members of Congress don't like to be seen as partisan ideologues.  They think it's bad for reelection (and they are probably correct about that).  In less partisan days, those Members could point to all the opposite party Members who voted with them.  That's no longer available, especially for Democrats.  So marginal Democrats are going to be eager to find other ways to convince neutral opinion leaders that Republican, and not Democrats, are the ones behind intense partisanship.  That was why Max Baucus spent a couple of months on the Gang of Six talks, and that's probably the main reason behind the White House summit. 

Or, to put it another way, it's a PR stunt -- but it's not a phony PR stunt.  It's a PR stunt with a solid, understandable purpose.  Notice that under this interpretation, the likelihood that it'll also look good for the president is really a bonus, not the main reason.

One more thing.  The implication of this is that the more that Republicans are successful at uniting behind a rejectionist strategy, the more marginal Democrats are going to want to do things like the Gang of Six and the White House summit.  Moreover, the more that Republicans are successful at uniting behind a rejectionist strategy, the more liberal Members of Congress won't mind such stunts, because they'll know that there's little if any chance of any actual compromise going on in such "negotiations."  

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