Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rhetoric On Compromise vs. Actual Compromise

Greg Sargent assesses appointments to the Joint Select Committee:
[T]he differences between the two approaches border on the absurd. The GOP is telegraphing in advance that it won’t budge on its core priorities in total defiance of public opinion. Dems, by contrast, are signaling flexibility at the outset on their core priorities even though public opinion is on their side.
Well, since he asked...

Two point here. One is that there's nothing quite like the Republican aversion to taxes on the Democratic side. It is possible, for example, to describe Medicare reforms that Democrats, including strong liberals, would support on substantive grounds. Democrats have a whole lot of things they care about deeply, but no single overriding priority equivalent to the GOP position on taxes (and, yes, Democrats should be and perhaps are working on how to turn that to their advantage).

The other is that rhetoric about compromise isn't quite the same thing as actual willingness to compromise. It's absolutely true, as Greg says, that Harry Reid and other Democrats talk about how much they want to reach a deal and how flexible they intend to be, while Republicans have been spending the last week groveling to Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh. My guess is that it's easy to overstate how important that rhetoric is. Basically, at this point both sides are attempting to appeal to the constituencies they care about not in terms of substantive policy, but in terms of their attitude towards politics. But those constituencies also do have substantive concerns, and I'd expect those to trump attitudes about process down the line (although expect public statements to remain framed by those process concerns). In other words, it makes perfect sense that Democrats express eagerness to make a deal now, and then after there's no deal they will express their frustration that Republicans weren't willing to meet them halfway. But that doesn't mean that Democrats will in fact be any less vigilant in fighting for their preferences than the Republicans will be in fighting for theirs.


  1. Well put on the contrast between rhetoric in approach and substantive goals. One question is whether the rhetoric about compromise matters -- and, if it does, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing. Public opinion data suggests in a limited sense that it's a good thing. Partisans on both sides favor compromise in the abstract: for instance, in the recent CBS/NYT poll, there's broad support (though +10 points higher among Dems) to compromise some positions to get things done rather than stick to positions even if it means not getting as much done -- Dem/Rep/Ind compromise percents at 89/79/85. However, as you point out, selling compromise as a goal in itself may not be a satisfying one without meeting policy preferences of constituents. Policy results matter.

  2. So the story is that the Democrats are announcing they are going to be responsive to public opinion, and the Republicans are announcing they will resolutely defy public opinion. And the conclusion is that it is the Democrats who don't understand politics?

    I suppose if you thought this process has a snowball's chance of resulting in a "grand bargain", you might conclude the Democrats needed to be more uncompromising upfront, regardless of public opinion. But if you assume it is all a political exercise, then I it seems the Democrats are playing it correctly.

  3. There's another perspective to add to the mix: does the composition indicate that Dems fear the trigger more than the GOP? The trigger is, it seems, closer to the opinions of a Ron Paul than any Dem I can think of. Now, Ron Paul isn't the mainstream of the GOP, but he's closer to the mainstream of the Tea Party (although not there, particularly on military spending).

    I wonder how unhappy Tea Partiers are in general with the status quo ante of the trigger. It's not a neutral bargaining situation if one side can take it or leave it.

  4. Regarding the trigger: note that Eric Cantor's letter to his caucus, which swore to hold the line on taxes, didn't say a thing about defense cuts. My worry is that those prospective cuts will prove to be more intolerable to Obama than to the GOP. In which case this would be a replay of the dead ceiling stickup -- a replay of Dems' own devising, no less.

    I comfort myself, though, with the thought that even Obama can't countenance another cave -- i.e. negotiated spending cuts with no revenues.

    Maybe the worst outcome would be some pitiful fig leaf of new revenue with another trillion-plus in spending cuts negotiated - a 10-to-1 cuts-to-revenue deal, if you count the cuts in round 1.

  5. I think the Democrats should establish a revenue goal equal to the revenue gained from the expiration of the Bush tax cuts minus the revenue necessary to maintain the cuts for the middle class. Then tell the republicans that they must produce this revenue or the tax cuts are dead meat period. And stick to it. The Republicans lose all three ways--partial elimination of the tax cuts, total elimination of them or the automatic sequester, and the Democrats might win some revenue increase.

    Dick in N. Central FL

  6. "But that doesn't mean that Democrats will in fact be any less vigilant in fighting for their preferences than the Republicans will be in fighting for theirs. "

    Did you not notice the recent debt ceiling fight?


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