Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hypocrites...Or Good Representatives?

I see that Jonathan Cohn is upset that Republicans claim to support deficit reduction, and yet support policies that would increase the deficit while opposing policies that would lower the deficit.  That's true!  Indeed, I strongly agree with Matt Yglesias that movement conservatives are not, in fact, deficit hawks, and haven't been for at least thirty years. 

My fairly obvious observation about all that is (and I'm too lazy to look up the polls, but they're not at all difficult to find; John Sides has explored this over at the Monkey Cage, too) that this position -- lip service to the ideal of a balanced budget, but actual policies that produce enormous budget deficits -- is exactly what the American people tell pollsters they want.  Now, I'm convinced that the majority of the American people don't actually know what "deficit" means (I'll refer again to the famous Bush/Clinton/Perot debate moment in which Bush was baffled by a question about how the deficit affected him personally, eventually needing the moderator to translate it to "the recession").    But perhaps what really needs explaining is the Democrats' position, which seems to be actually caring about the deficit in practice but pointing out the complexity of the issue in their rhetoric.  That is, doing what's popular shouldn't need much of an explanation; what's odd is going against the polls.  Which is it: do Dems misread the polls and mistakenly believe that people really want balanced budgets?  Do they think that "responsible" budgeting will be popular regardless of the polling and, the 1996 presidential race notwithstanding, the election results?  Or do they simply care more about policy than they do about popularity?  I have no idea, but I do think that this is a pretty clear case of the Republicans in perfect sync with the will of the people, and the Democrats far from it.


  1. You're a good blogger, and maybe this was by design, but this point could scarcely have been made in a more irritating way.

  2. Ummmm...thanks?

    FWIW, and I'm not sure whether its responsive to the comment or not, but I should note that I don't consider hypocrisy a political sin, and certainly not a major political sin.

  3. Why not?

    It seems odd to think that hypocrisy (itself) isn't a political sin of some sort. It may be a minor sin. It may be an often justified sin. It may be that certain things which might normally be considered hypocrisy aren't in the political context (e.g., voting against ones judgement because it's the clear will of the constituents).

    Now, to be perfectly fair, I don't think that a lot of hypocrisy is a sin anyway. Hypocrisy is lying, and some lying is justifiable or even required. The usual case wherein its a sin is when someone strongly professes that some behavior is forbidden (or required) unto sanction (whether social or otherwise) but wishes to exempt themselves from either adhering to the norm or facing the sanction.

    Which is what's going on, right?

  4. I think what the Democrats are most afraid of is that the Republicans, having branded themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility, will successfully attack the Dems for their profligacy. Far too many Democratic positions seem to result from the question, "How can I keep the GOP from beating me up on this?"

  5. Sorry to be abusive. I don't really care about hypocrisy much, but I do care about irresponsibility. They're not the same thing.

    I can't quite tell if the post is meant to be a koan intended to prod thinking about popularity and policy in a certain way. The more I think about it, maybe you are doing that, and koans after all are meant to elicit friction in thought, if they're any good.

    But if you're not, you're basically taking the position that kids need good nutrition and would even support good nutrition in principle, but actually prefer lots of candy all the time. And, further, that good parenting would consist of lecturing kids about good nutrition while feeding them candy. Sure, the analogy breaks down on the level of, kids don't vote for parents, but it's good up until that point. Surely there's more to politics -- let me re-phrase -- surely there's more to public service than getting re-elected all the time? Is that the end point the koan is intended to lead to? If so, well done, and we do agree. But if not, you're taking on this tone of "why on earth would the Democrats pursue rational policies?" -- and that was what I found irritating.

    I would only add something that Yglesias says about twice a day, which is that it's better to ignore "popularity" in politics if you have the option of "doing things that make the economy work well." The "popular" thing will fail because people are idiots when they are polled, and they will respond positively to good outcomes. Hence it's better to pursue the good outcomes.

    Lastly, the post is also partly about political presentation. The Dems are not good at presentation, we all know this. So you're praising the Republicans from a political perspective for being savvy enough to know that people like meaningless blather about deficits, and they like pork. This is true as far as it goes, but I'd point out that these strategies have driven the Republicans off a cliff, the Democrats are still the majority party in this country if that term means anything, and we're probably in a general good period for Democrats (think demographics) in which 2010 is an outlier for purely circumstantial reasons. I don't quite see the point in saying, "Focusing on short term popularity ends is rational, as we can see by the party who just got slammed in two elections, whose last president was so bad it's upsetting even to invoke his name, and who are going to enjoy a few short-term successes in 2010 primarily because of the messes they are responsible for."

  6. Martin,

    I think you're reading something into my post that I'm not intending. I'm not taking any position on deficits here, nor am I saying that what either party is doing is good or bad...generally, I don't do those things here. I'm saying that (1) the GOP position matches the position of the American people on these issues; (2) the Dem position is more or less the opposite of the position of the American people; and, (3) it's the latter types of positions that we generally think need explanations. And then I speculate a bit about some of the possible explanations. One of them matches what you attribute to Yglesias -- that they think that doing what they see as the right thing (that is, lower deficits) will work out well electorally because it will be successful public policy, whatever the polls say now. I agree with Yglesias on that point, although he wouldn't advocate deficit reduction as a path to good economic results in most circumstances (and, as I've said, neither would I).

    And BTW we don't "all know" that Dems are not good at presentation. I wouldn't agree with that as a generalization, at all. I don't think there's any long-term difference between the parties on that score.


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