Thursday, August 20, 2009

A theory

So I have this theory:

Obama did a lot of chattering about bipartisanship during the campaign and after. Now that the GOP is full batshit-crazy freakout, there are a lot of people talking about how they predicted that Obama's hopes for bipartisanship were naive.

It seems to me, though, that most of these past few months of healthcare `debate' have been a great big head-fake from the administration: the GOP, including its elected officials, have I think successfully proven that they are intransigeant and unwilling to bargain in good faith. So, now Obama is empowered to completely ignore the GOP in working out a healthcare bill and probably a fair chunk of other legislation.

I imagine that working with Republicans on the stimulus was only necessary because the clock was ticking.



Blogger Tyson said...

I wish this were true, but I don't think it is. The past few months have really driven down Obama's poll numbers, as well as those of Democrats in general. True, Republicans are even lower, but Obama's momentum from the election and "comparative advantage," if you like, have taken a pretty serious blow. This makes it harder to get legislation in general passed, let alone comprehensive reform of any kind. As an example, one of the health care bills (I forget which one) wound up basically ditching end-of-life counseling, thanks to all this "death panel" nonsense. There are procedural ways of bettering the bills, but that seems harder, not easier, than the straight-ahead legislative process. And it would play into a right-leaning narrative about how the liberal policies can't pass popular muster, must be shoehorned in by mustache-twirlingly evil bureaucrats, and so on. That's the last thing we need!

Anyway, if it's a strategy, it seems pretty high risk, low reward.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Cameron said...

Hmm. I still like my theory -- thinking back on the relative quiet of the quiet of the Obama campaign through summer 2008, even through the Celebrity ad campaign and such; his campaign's primary strategy, concentrating on small to medium-sized states and playing to a draw in big states.

I also think that the received wisdom of "healthcare has to be dealt with right away, before any 'momentum' is lost"* is not much more than an old wives tale. What's more, there's no really good reason to think that Obama's people didn't see a big-fat right-wing freakout coming a mile away. (In fact, I can pretty well guarantee that Obama, as a black man, knew very well that some serious insanity was in the offing.) It seems farfetched to me to suppose that demonstrably clever people would just not bother with these insights. You might also note that the administration has also been peeling off a number of "the Republicans have embraced the crazy"-type statements in the last few days. As for rewards: if it means writing legislation without Republican input, I would count it as a pretty big win. Taking the long view (and assuming that Obama is more interested in the legislation itself, rather than the "politics" of a legislative accomplishment), getting high-quality social programs in place definitely trumps any cost as far as the narrative goes. Taking social security and medicare as examples, people quickly internalize these as civil rights, and repealing them becomes intractable.

If I were involved in the planning, I might have tried to workout a campaign of demonstrating that the media don't understand fuck-all about how my administration works. Only after having that established, I'd work on controversial legislation. So, that's an option not taken. It sounds kind of specific, but it's just one means to the end "neutralize the talking heads."

On end-of-life counseling: I think it will be relatively easy to give that a new name ("senior-citizen health options counseling," say) and include some meaningless prohibitions against things that were never going to happen anyway. Then you have what you wanted anyway.

* - I tend to distrust the word "momentum" outside of scientific contexts because I feel it is an extremely murky term. No one talks about "wind resistance" in the same way, so why should momentum automatically dissipate? I will believe political momentum is a real thing when someone shows me a model of how it is at least supposed to work.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Tyson said...

Goodness, lots to respond to! Okay so first off, I agree that political jargon like "momentum" is murky at best, and probably should be avoided. I meant something like "popular approval or perception thereof amongst the political elite" and "ability to exert influence on that same elite." That's a bit of a mouthful though - and given to its own murkiness as well - so I used "momentum" as shorthand. But better to be clearer.

Also, I'm not sure that the "move quickly on healthcare" idea is really received wisdom (or an old wive's tale, but I'll get to that later). Rather, it seems to me that it's a real point of contention between Democrats and Republicans. The latter, at least through June and about mid-July, were going on about how such important legislation had to wait, there should be more bipartisan input, England!, France!, Scary!, and so on and so on. That, I think, is because there would have been real political and policy benefits to be gained by the Democrats by passing a bill before the August recess. Political benefits, in that it would have been a clear and decisive victory for the Democratic party. And policy benefits, in that passing a bill before August would have made it much more difficult for the Republicans to mount an effective response, mangle the bill in the various committees and legislative sessions, go on TV and wail about socialism (they'll do that anyway, obviously, but it'd be a lot less effective if health care had already been passed). Of course, that's not to say that there aren't other good ways to go about passing health care reform. But it is to say that, in my mind at least, there would have been real merit to passing reform quickly.

On the high-risk, low-reward business: you're definitely right that being able to legislate without having to cater the wackjob contingent would be a very big win. I didn't phrase this well, so let me clarify. I was mainly talking about the way in which this outcome could be brought about. Assuming that's Obama's strategy (and it very well might be), I'd say the "slow burn" approach, as it were, is high-risk, since it allows the right-wing to mobilize, to spread scurrilous lies in public (which, as I understand the poll data, unfortunately do take root in the public even if most people think the anti-healthcare crowd are a bunch of wackos), and to substantially weaken the healthcare reform that we eventually do get (as we've already seen with end-of-life counseling and, I fear, the public option). And it's low-reward, since it seems there would be more effective ways of getting at the same outcome. At the beginning of the summer, Obama had very strong approval ratings, what would seem to be real popular support for reform, and Congressional Democrats ready to work on healthcare. That kind of position would allow him a lot of political leverage, which he could use for instance to push congress to work faster, to draft a more comprehensive bill, or to intervene earlier in the debate (Obama didn't really extensively step into the debate until I think later July; previous to that most of the action on the Democratic side was from the various congresspersons). So it just seems to me that there would be other, better ways of outflanking the right-wing than, basically, letting them do as much damage as possible before flaming out. The "slow burn" approach may wind up with a bill passed, but I think it'll be a worse bill than could have been passed otherwise.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Tyson said...

Because I'm just that pedantic, let me clarify my position a bit more. Again, I think you're absolutely right that Obama did foresee a big-fat right-wing freakout (well-phrased, by the way). And you're definitely right that we've seen more statements from the administration about said freakout. Where I disagree is on the point of whether this is the sign of some kind of super-longterm strategy that Obama has been planning from the beginning. It seems to me it's more of an adaptation to the vehemence of the right-wing reaction than anything else; if it were a longterm strategy, it seems to me that we would have heard a lot more pushback from the administration, and we would have heard it earlier than late August. So I agree that Obama foresaw some kind of right-wing reaction. I don't think he foresaw this specific kind of reaction, and I think it caught the administration a bit flat-footed. What we're seeing now is a deviation from, not a completion of, an original strategy.

3:05 PM  

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