Monday, April 29, 2013

Post-Policy GOP and Sequestration

Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas write:
Republicans wanted entitlement cuts. They’re not getting them. They wanted to protect defense spending. Instead, the Pentagon is getting gutted while Medicare and Social Security are left mostly untouched. They had an eye toward tax reform. Nuh-uh.
That is, keeping sequestration in place is, they write, lose-lose when it comes to policy.

Which would be absolutely true if Republicans really did want entitlement cuts, defense spending, tax reform, or, as they go on to discuss, long-term deficit reduction.

If, however, we take the "post-policy" idea seriously, then it's a little easier to understand. Republicans, for example, are rhetorically in favor of "entitlement" cuts, but they have opposed actual Medicare cuts and some of them opposed Barack Obama's chained-CPI proposal, too. Those post-policy Republicans are happy to bash "entitlements," but what they're for? It appears that what they're for is for Democrats to propose cuts in Medicare and Social Security that they can then oppose.

Granted: clearly some Republicans want (for example) higher defense spending, including both Republican politicians and GOP-aligned interest groups. But in the aggregate, it's really not clear that "Republicans" care very much about any of these things other than as excuses for rhetoric positioning. In that sense, Republicans may be less in favor of defense spending than they are in favor of being able to claim that Obama cut defense spending, and then having an excuse to blame any particular national security outcome on those defense cuts.

I'm not sure one can prove this one way or another, but it sure seems to me that the post-policy idea works really well at explaining what we're seeing.


  1. I suppose it's valuable to ask a basic question, to wit why SHOULD Republicans care about policy results? As has been documented here and in other fora, there is no real incentive in the conservative marketplace, taken as a whole, to really care, with the exception of keeping tax rates low. In addition,and probably of much more importance, political science with each passing day provides more and more evidence that policy success or failure is irrelevant to electoral outcomes barring war or recession.

    Now, given this, there seems to be no real reason the GOP, or for that matter any political actor on any side, should care about policy. The only reason to do so would be 1)true belief, perhaps including the constellation of true beliefs we call patriotism or at least a sense of civic duty, or 2) the basic idea that good policy over time provides peace, prosperity, and satisfaction, which results in good outcomes for the political system in general and a given political party in general.

    I won't waste anyone's time with the first one. As for the second, is it really true? Does good policy result in those outcomes. And do those outcomes have anything to do with elections? Even if they do have anything to do with elections, aren't the results so temporary that one can easily simply shrug them off as the cost of doing business and move on? Even if good policy does bring good outcomes that do help political actors, why on earth go through the trouble of implementing the policy, with all the pain entailed by that? Just oppose it when convenient, then embrace it when and if it works trusting that the public isn't paying attention and doesn't really care all that much, anyway.

    That sounds terribly cynical, I know. But the fact is, given the way we know the system works, and the way voters work, and the experiences of the past few years (and arguably historical evidence going much farther back than that) it really is very hard to come up with a convincing reason -- which is to say a reason rooted in self-interest that people would actually be inclined to listen to -- for why the GOP, or the Dems, or anyone else, should really give a ... use your favorite obscenity ... about policy or good policy outcomes.

    1. On a related point, I said here during the campaign last year that there was no incentive I could see for a presidential nominee, once the nomination was secure, to stick to any particular position -- including those most beloved of his "party actors" and party-aligned interest groups -- if it might cost him even a single net vote in the fall. Nobody on the GOP side, including the taxophobe groups like the Club for Growth, the talk-radio ranters like Rush, the ideologues at the National Review and Weekly Standard, etc., was going to give Romney much of a hard time for anything he said as long as he was the one and only hope of preventing another Obama term. Either those groups don't care about policy themselves, or they knew that whatever policies they cared about would only be stymied if Romney lost.

      That being the case, I do not understand why Romney didn't soft-pedal his tax position, pick a moderate running mate, endorse some kind of immigration reform, etc. Yes, he would have been flip-flopping, but like that ever stopped Romney? He did largely stand down on defense issues during the debates with Obama, soft-pedaling the various neocon positions he would almost certainly have taken as president, and he didn't vent his views on the 47% publicly the way we know he did in private. But on most big questions, he was surprisingly consistent -- especially for Mitt Romney -- from the spring to the fall, to his cost and probable later regret.

      I think what happened is that the revolution that the GOP has been bringing to American politics -- that it's all about political positioning and winning, not achieving policy goals -- hadn't advanced as far yet, as of 2012, vis-a-vis presidential campaigns as it had, say, with regard to abuse of Senate rules and the like. Yes, this revolution, plus a lack of other candidates, allowed an obviously untrustworthy conservative to win the GOP nomination. But even Romney and his advisors, oddly enough, were probably still operating on some old assumptions about the importance of doctrinal consistency and the like. Campaigns will catch up, though, and probably starting in 2016 we are going to see GOP presidential nominees, from April or so until early November, basically talking like Barack Obama, or maybe some slightly more center-right Democrat. They won't mean a word of it, but what's the incentive not to? The goal is to win, right?

  2. Hey, it's the same whether it's Dems or Repubs. Neither wants to get tarred with actual, specific cuts, so they aren't proposing them. And this fear is justified, because the other side will positively leap at the chance to bash them for any cuts they make or propose.

    Just look at how both parties bashed each other over Medicare cuts and/or voucher proposals. Dems don't want to admit how they hope to lower Medicare spending and neither do the GOP. You don't hear the Dems saying "vouchers are bad, and our plan for saving money [details here] is better." The GOP doesn't say "The Dems will ration care, and we think vouchers are better because X, Y, and Z."

    Since neither party wants to make cuts or talk honestly about their plans, what is the electorate to do? I personally decided to make an educated guess about what each party would do, and voted based on that.

    1. I should add that my educated guess was that the GOP would go crazy if they had full control of government, so I was rooting for divided government. I got my wish. (Which makes it my fault now, I suppose.)

    2. MP, at this point we should not be cutting at all; demand is still weak, although beginning to get stronger. In the long term, the cost of medical care needs to be addressed, but that is not the same as cutting Medicare. It's better to reduce the cost of Medicare by reducing the cost of the care it pays for, rather than by simply refusing to pay the bills and then assuming everything will turn out fine. That's what Obamacare was about, or part of what it was about.

      And yes, from now on, I'm going to blame you.

    3. No, MP, it doesn't make it your fault -- else Obama's mistakes would be my fault, as would those of the first term GW Bush (yes, I voted for the man, I liked him when he was governor of Texas, I was younger then).

      But that does raise a good point -- that is how should people who once preferred divided government, that is who preferred it back when the GOP wasn't as crazy as it is now, react to the current post-policy era? I don't know the answer to that one, but I would like to hear some musings from people in that camp.

  3. Politically, there is no such thing as a lose-lose proposition--if you take it for granted that the first priority of parties is to win elections and that ideology (while necessary to attract a base of supporters) is secondary. Under a two-party system, anything has to be a net plus to one party and a net minus to the other. Either more people will blame Obama for the problems caused by sequestration or more will blame the Republicans in Congress. In the former case, it's a victory for the Republicans, in the latter case for the Democrats. Even if polls show that many voters take an "a plague on both your houses" attitude and decide not to vote at all, either more of those non-voters will be people who otherwise would have voted Democratic or people who would otherwise have voted Republican.

    Granted, it may take votes away from both parties *about* equally; public opinion may be so balanced that it may be hard to *determine* which party come out ahead; but in theory one party *must* benefit, however slightly, and the other be hurt, however slightly.

    In a zero-sum game, there is no such thing as anything "hurting both parties."

    1. Elections are zero sum. Policy is not.

    2. But that presumes that people care about policy, does it not? Granted, if you care about particular policy concerns, then there are all kinds of permutations that don't necessarily lead to win/lose. Thus, to choose an obvious example, if the GOP had really wanted tort reform they could have easily gotten it as part of negotiations over ACA.

      But once again, that presumes one cares about policy and policy outcomes. Once again, it has been pointed out many times that the GOP by and large doesn't except with regard to taxes. Okay, then, we are back to the question that if one wants them to care about policy, one should be able to articulate a reason why they SHOULD care about policy. And by caring about policy I don't mean just saying the popular or advantageous thing about policy, I mean really caring about policy substance or outcomes.

      Like I say, one could argue from morality, that it is the right or patriotic or civic thing to do. Good luck with that one.

      The other line is to argue from interest, that it is the advantageous thing to do. Yet, is there any way to do that? Indeed, it would seem that all of the evidence points to a negative. Now, I'm not talking about advantage to social groups or industries or whatever. I'm talking about advantage to actual political actors who set policy. Once again, the answer seems to be negative. Rather the advantage seems to be in simply saying whatever is politically advantageous at the time and just ignoring substance.

      So, while policy may not be zero sum, if the gain you get is a gain that gives you no advantage, then there is really no reason to care from the standpoint of calculated politicial self-interest. And if there is no reason to care ... well, why on Earth would you?

      I guess it comes back to one of my favorite saying attributed to Cardinal Wolsey, minister to Henry VIII. He most assuredly never said it, but it gets to the heart of the matter: "Never tell a king what he CAN do. Only tell him what he SHOULD do." I guess our problem is the king has found out what he CAN do, and given that, what he SHOULD do just isn't very important.

  4. Jonathan, let's assume that Republicans believe (rightly or wrongly) that blocking everything Obama wants and then blaming Obama for the gridlock will be a succesful strategy in terms of making Obama and the Democrats less popular, and will ultimately lead to the GOP retaking the Senate and the presidency. Once they get these, they can enact whatever policies they want (you'll see how irrelevant the "sixty vote requirement" will be then; they will find all sorts of ways around it, and if the parliamentarian doesn't agree they will fire him).

    And suppose they believe that compromising with Obama will make him look more successful, and therefore make it more likely the Democrats retain the Senate and the presidency and maybe even regain the House.

    In that case, wouldn't it be foolish *even from a policy viewpoint* to settle for half a loaf now if it makes it harder for them to get the full loaf in the future?

    I happen to think that they are wrong if they believe that what they are doing is clever politically (in the vote-winning sense) but if it *is* effective politically, then within a few years it will also be effective in terms of getting the policy they want.

    (As for the arugment that 2012 proves that failure to compromise with Obama is bad politics, they would probably reply that things like Romney's image as a heartless plutocrat and a poor choice of Senate candidates were to blame, not the GOP being too inflexible in dealing with Obama. I'm not saying that I agree with them, but they may sincerely believe this--though of course it is also possible they are just scared of primary challengers from the Right.)


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