Saturday, April 10, 2010

Is Showboat Negotiating Out?

Ezra Klein had a really interesting point this week about the fate of Bart Stupak and Ben Nelson.
The two of them took the most damage during health-care reform, and for the same reason: They took a hostage and then accepted the ransom. And while that strategy might have worked in the past, it's proven a disaster...Compare Nelson and Stupak to people such as Mark Warner or Brad Ellsworth, both of whom are moderate Democrats who had serious concerns about the bill, but who spent their time quietly getting those concerns addressed rather than using them to get TV bookings in advance of a high-profile deal. Nelson and Stupak made themselves into targets for both the left and the right, and ended the process with lots of notoriety but even more new enemies. Warner and Ellsworth haven't suffered from the same backlash. The old model in which moderate Democrats justify their vote for a bill by talking trash about it until they get bought off doesn't work in an environment where the media and the political opposition is waiting to pounce on the buy-off.
Note that the difference reported here between the Benator and Stupak, on the one hand, and Warner and Ellsworth on the other was entirely in their public strategy.  Both, according to Klein, used their strategic position to extract concessions.  But Nelson and Stupak invited the glare of maximum publicity, which appears to have backfired, while Warner and Ellsworth avoided the cameras.

Is this version correct?  I'm really not sure, but I'll discuss some of the issues that I'm aware of, beginning with a look at Nelson and Stupak and then speculating about Members of Congress and the current media environment.  Ben Nelson, Klein writes, would be in trouble if he were up for reelection this year...but Nelson knew that he wasn't, so I'm not sure that we should count that against his strategy.  Nelson will, in two years, be going on air with ads claiming that voting for a Republican would forfeit Nebraska's clout in the Senate (as all senior Senators facing a difficult partisan situation always do).  Well, even if people in Nebraska don't like the deal he made on health care reform,  I'm willing to bet that they'll find his claims of clout a lot more plausible because of this whole episode, even though it went about as badly as it could have.  That's something.  I don't know how it will balance, in three years, against his newfound reputation as the king of Democratic corruption, if that's how people think of him.

On Stupak...I strongly suspect he just miscalculated, and wound up in way over his head.  Perhaps not, but that's my guess.  Here's a guy who has been in Congress for almost two decades, and probably has never been anywhere close to CNN, certainly not in any serious, sustained way.  His press "office" presumably consisted of a press secretary who knew exactly how to work the local press, and treated any national press as gravy, but mostly irrelevant.  And whatever legislative action he had taken was far from the front page.  All of a sudden, his constellation of issue positions put him in an impossible and central position on the highest profile bill in his entire time in Congress.  I don't think he handled it especially well (beginning with allowing his amendment to be called the Stupak amendment, rather than the Life Amendment or Hyde II or anything else without his name), but I also appreciate the jam he was in.  Yes, he could have declared victory on the Senate abortion language -- but doing so would have squandered his pro-life credentials, because what matters for that is what the pro-life establishment says, not what the law actually does. 

Generally, I'd say that there has been a change over time in the relationship between local and national press, and Members of Congress may find it difficult to adapt.  In the postwar era, there was very little national news (typically just the thirty minute nightly network television newscasts), and so it was extremely unlikely for Members of Congress, especially the House, to receive national media coverage.  Now, there are hours and hours of national news on the cable networks, plus a handful of national newspapers (don't forget that one couldn't receive the (hard-copy) NYT outside of New York until fairly recently, and the WaPo has never been available nationally until the digital version), plus the blogs, plus nationally syndicated talk radio.  Most local press was easy for Members of Congress, who could literally get their press releases reprinted as news in small town papers, and could furnish audio clips used verbatim by even big-city radio stations.  National press, no matter how passive some TV interviewers seem to critics, is a whole different game, and a lot less able to be controlled.

Ezra Klein emphasizes the difficulty, for people in Nelson's or Stupak's position, of criticizing a bill and then eventually supporting it, once they've convinced everyone it's a bad idea.  Could be.  I think what I would point to is that these deals are getting evaluated first by the national, and not the state, press.  From the national point of view, of course, specific benefits for Nebraska are a lousy deal to the nation as a whole.  In the old days, those criticisms (if they were made; there's also the whole matter of disclosure, but let's say that Nelson and Stupak courted publicity) would have been made at the national level, but not heard much back in Nebraska.  Meanwhile, newspapers and local radio and TV in Nebraska would have evaluated the bill in terms of how it affected that state, certainly taking some cues from national coverage but often ignoring the national angle to focus just on local concerns.  And the spin provided by a Senator involved in the bill would have been, in 1950 or 1970 or even 1985, much more likely to be accepted, mainly because a local news anchor wouldn't even hear any alternative.  They would know the general arguments for and against the bill -- especially if local pols were split -- but not necessarily the arguments against the local provisions provided by the local Members of Congress. 

Note too that all of this has implications for polarization.  In 1960, it was simply a lot easier for a pol to go against the national party -- because local party activists were just a lot less likely to know the national party's position, and even less likely to know how their party's pols were supposed to talk about national issues.  Of course, there were ways to spread party talking points across the nation, but they were massively inefficient compared to current methods.  I wouldn't suggest drawing any conclusions from that, but it's probably worth keeping in mind while thinking about polarization.

Again, I have no conclusions to draw on the narrower questions, either.  Neither Stupak nor Nelson is exactly the kind of media-savvy pol who might have been able to pull off high-profile negotiations, so perhaps things would be different if a more capable Member of Congress tried it.  And as I said at the top, I'm not really convinced that either was actually hurt by this episode.  Still, I think it's a topic that is worth thinking about, and Ezra Klein's post is a good start.


  1. It's hard to see how Stupak comes out of this not looking motivated by principle. After all, his more restrictive language was of his own authorship and elicited the Senate compromise, not the other way round -- ie, his not wanting to accept the compromise wasn't a grandstanding reaction to an initial proposal, rather he was being asked to accept a watering down of his stated preferred clause. Ultimately, though, he decides passage of a bill is more important. Then he retires from Congress. If he thought his path was good for him in his district, wouldn't he have at least hung around long enough to find out? i think this explanation has Occam on its side.

  2. ...The only way to argue that it was all just a political maneuver would be to say that he obviously by his own substantive standards should have accepted Pelosi's initial solution in the first House bill, and not doing so amounted to political grandstanding to get right with pro-lifers. But he problem with that is, he IS a pro-lifer.

  3. I find it odd that Stupak decided to quit over this. A bunch of wackos start calling you bad names and threatening your family and your response is to do what they want you to? It'll make me sound like an internet-tough-guy to write it, but politicians should really be made out of sterner stuff.

    Maybe he just decided he'd had a good run and didn't want to deal with the b.s. I don't agree with him on the relevant issue, but I doubt he was the showboating traitor so many on both sides painted him to be.

    Also, that's a good analysis of national news coverage.

  4. Julian,

    The problem is that there's really no way of ever knowing why someone retired. No one is going to say that they quit because they hate being called names, and almost no one is going to say that they quit because they were afraid of losing. Or because they decided to go be a lobbyist and make a lot of money. OTOH, it's pretty likely that some people really do retire because they are just plain burnt out from the travel and the pace and all, even though plenty of them say that and aren't telling the truth. There's just no way to get inside their heads on it (and of course they might not really know why, either).


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