Friday, December 3, 2010

The Bargaining Advantage of Not Caring About Policy

This week's Big Thing Question seems to be why Democrats allegedly don't play "hardball" as well as Republicans do.  I'm not really sure whether that's true or not, but I do agree with Kevin Drum that Republicans are probably a bit better at believing their own press releases; with Drum and Matt Yglesias that the GOP partisan press gives some tactical advantages to Republicans (although I'm not really convinced that those advantages play out to anything more than winning unimportant spin wars); and with Jamelle Bouie that Democratic unanimity is harder to achieve because Democrats are simply more diverse: what makes Democrats the larger of the two parties is the same thing that makes it harder for them to stay united. 

Before I submit my own addition to this, I should point out: the 111th Congress has been one of the most productive Congresses ever.  That doesn't prove that Democrats are really better at legislating that the current conventional wisdom would have it, and it certainly doesn't mean that disgruntled Democrats should just shut up and accept that their pols are brilliant.  Not at all.  But it is worth keeping in mind that the context of all this is "not enough" rather than failure.  That said...

I think Bouie is on the right track here, but I think even more to the point is that most Democratic constituency groups have real policy demands, and that they're very eager to have those demands fulfilled.  My sense is that a lot of Republican constituency groups have more symbolic demands.

Therefore, at the end of the day, a lot of Republican constituency groups are willing to go along with an all-or-nothing strategy on most issues, while Democratic constituency groups are perfectly willing to bargain for as much as they can get.  Look: if you want universal health care, you are probably willing to settle for moving from 80% coverage to 95% coverage (or whatever the actual numbers are).  If you believe that government involvement in health care is unconstitutional, or immoral, or whatever, then there's not much to bargain over. 

A lot of liberal commenters noted, and I think were in some cases surprised, that moderate Republicans weren't willing to cut a deal on ACA (or the banking bill, or climate), since given the political situation those Republicans could basically write their own ticket.  I think the answer may be that those moderate Republicans just didn't have important constituency groups with specific, discreet policy demands in that area.  Not just in health care, but on quite a few issues that Democrats consider critical -- because Democratic constituency groups consider those policy areas critical. 

In some ways, that's what makes John McCain the perfect Republican -- because he simply doesn't care about policy at all, except in personal or symbolic ways.

Yes, I should point out, it's a generalization that doesn't always hold, and probably an exaggeration.  Nevertheless, I think it accounts for some key differences.  In lots of policy areas, Republicans simply don't care very much what happens.  And while that has a lot of limitations, it also can at times give them strong bargaining power.


  1. It's also worth bringing up the "inescapability of conflict"/"democratic frustration" you've discussed before.

    The Republican party appears to have little interest in actively using domestic policy or in updating policy frameworks as they become obsolete (think health care, education, immigration, and so on). Those constituencies who want government to work this way are therefore drawn towards the Democrats. I haven't read Jamelle Bouie's piece on this, but I have to imagine it's partly why the Democratic tent is so much larger. The party appears actually to be interested in ambitious domestic policy initiatives.

    As productive as this Congress has been under Democratic leadership, it has still failed to address some issues of core concern to certain constituencies that rely on the Democratic Party. Immigration and climate change are two examples. Congressional Democrats managed to touch on a lot of issues, but not these.

    Think of it like a group of people trying to squeeze through a door. The Democratic Party has so many elements really passionately yearning for action, but there's only so much time in a legislative session when the opposition is this obstructive.

    This is where the "democratic frustration" comes in. It's not necessarily that Democratic constituencies have opposed aims; they just have different ones, so even if a couple core areas of interest get addressed, that inevitably leaves some groups upset that they didn't get their chance.

  2. Yes, it has been a productive congress. Productive of legislation that 25 years ago would have been considered Republican, but today is considered "radically left".

    I'm happy to take my progress 1" at a time, but going up down escalators is not conducive to progress.

  3. Anonymous:

    Democrats MOSTLY don't have opposed goals, but there are exceptions. The one that comes to mind immediately is cap-and-trade (which is one of those issues Gordon notes that the Democratic plan is one that Republicans used to put forward, and is very amenable to Jonathan's "some progress is better than none").
    Environmentalists want it, but two other constituencies that are largely Democratic don't: auto workers and coal miners. It doesn't help things that most of those people live in areas that are more amenable to electing Republicans anyway (except Detroit, but all the other areas that make autos count, too). So, when you're lining up things to cram through your limited door opening, cap-and-trade is going to be at the back of that line.
    Immigration, too, has a lot of wedge-ness to it, but I'm not as sure that the parts of the coalition that oppose the rest of the party on immigration are as nastily geographically distributed for Dems' electoral fortunes. Does anybody have a good map of immigration opinion?

  4. JB: specific, discreet policy - Don't you mean "discrete"?

    "but there's only so much time in a legislative session when the opposition is this obstructive."
    I wonder how much time would be saved by introducing the Merkley filibuster rule?


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