Posts Tagged ‘Judd Gregg’

Explaining Republican Obstructionism: Party First

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Republicans are pushing back against the notion that they are simply obstructionists, that they are the “Party of ‘No’!” But as they do so, their obstructionism has reached new heights.

Specifically, you could look to these examples: Senator Mitch McConnell; Senator Judd Gregg; and Senator John McCain (who thought he was in favor of net neutrality before he started to raise money opposing it and calling it a “government takeover of the internet;” and on cap and trade legislation, which he was one of the major supporters of until Obama proposed it; or then changing his position on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.)

What you think about Republican obstruction determines what you think of Obama. The almost unanimous view of the right wing opinionosphere is that Obama is the most left-wing world leader since Mao Zedong. Obama’s supposed radicalism justifies and explains the unified Republican opposition. Yet no reasonable observer can judge Obama’s policies and actions as very far from the center. He has been ambitious, but cautious. So, with that explanation found to be implausible, what other explanations are there?

Andrew Sullivan posits one which seems the typical and politicized answer – and the one I would have given before the health care debate:

The core narrative of Obama’s promise and candidacy remains what it always was, in my view. He’s struggling against ideology to enact pragmatic reform.

There is truth to this claim – but it is insufficient given Obama’s pragmatism and moderation. On a range of issues, Republicans supported Bush and opposed Obama (for example, compare the treatment of failed shoe-bomber Richard Reid with that of failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab or even deficit spending in general.) This suggests the ideological motivation is not sufficient. Ezra Klein describing Senator Mitch McConnell’s vote against the Conrad-Gregg Deficit Commission posits an explanation that seems most compelling in understanding our current political gridlock, in predicting who will do what:

McConnell’s actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something  that makes people even more uncomfortable. We’re very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We’re much more concerned by the idea that they don’t disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

Simply put, for the most part, voters are not electing individuals with ideologies, but parties incentivized and empowered to obstruct to get into power. This creates the dynamic described in an email sent to James Fallows by a source who claims to have witnessed this conversation regarding the stimulus bill:

GOP member: ‘I’d like this in the bill.’

Dem member response: ‘If we put it in, will you vote for the bill?’

GOP member:  ‘You know I can’t vote for the bill.’

Dem member:  ‘Then why should we put it in the bill?’

Ezra Klein, citing John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, explains why this is an effective political strategy, even if it means giving up on governing:

“People believe that Americans all have the same basic goals,” write Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, “and they are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.”

Disagreement and deal-making, in other words, signal something going wrong in the political process. They signal that legislators aren’t acting in service of the common-sense consensus of the American people, and are instead serving special interests. Moreover, that’s often true.

In other words, most people, not having the time to figure out what is really going on as misinformation and ideology muddy the news, apply heuristic reasoning – shortcuts for guessing answers to complex problems. People don’t judge policies on the merits as there are conflicting claims, but instead on stories about the process as legislation is being debated and stories about effects after a policy is in force. Given this, its clear that Republicans are taking advantage of the dynamic described well by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com:

Republicans can brand any policy as “partisan” simply by opposing it, however moderate it might in fact be.

With the typical focus on ideology, this seems backwards. But a focus on ideology doesn’t explain the underlying facts – either the public opinion about what is happening in Washington or the uniform opposition of Republicans. At some point, this dynamic will change – because the media will need a new story and the public will grow bored and the facts will eventually seep into the public consciousness. Remember how effective the fear-mongering was after September 11? Eventually, it began to be seen as a stale political tactic – and though it may work again, for the moment, it seems to have lost its magical power. So, too, will this strategy – even if the Democrats never figure out that the effective way to counter this is to just pass the damn bills with good policy and defend them vigorously in public.

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The Larger Narrative

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009

David Brooks:

The crisis was labeled an economic crisis, but it was really a psychological crisis.

Republican pollster David Winston:

[Obama]‘s going to have to fit other issues into the larger narrative of the economy.

Michael D. Shear and Paul Kane in the Washington Post:

Whichever side proves to be right, the sharp, partisan lines over the stimulus bill make it plain that both parties intend to exact a political cost over last week’s votes. And their leaders are looking to history for inspiration as they consider how to maneuver in the weeks and months ahead…

Republicans have made it clear that they intend to try to shift the economic debate toward concern about the federal deficit.

Obama is now completing the three-step jig he planned from the beginning, with his address to Congress tonight focused on the Grand Bargain needed to shore up our economy for the forseeable future.

The first step of this jig was supposed to be easy, nonpartisan, and uncontroversial – a spending and tax cutting bill to stimulate the economy. The second step was supposed to be harder but still nonpartisan – dealing with the mortgage and banking messes. In both cases, Obama has approached these problems as a mechanic trying to figure out what has gone wrong and taking whatever steps are necessary to fix it. Just as a mechanic does not make moral judgments about springs and gears but focuses instead on doing what is necessary to get the machine working again, so Obama approached the economy. Most Americans appreciate this, as polls show that while many dislike the specific measures he has had to take, they approve of the job he is doing. The question was: how to get growth started again – greedy bankers and lying loan applicants and wasteful consumers all are being bailed out – because the problems they have caused are “gumming up the works.” And the consumers at least are being encouraged to continue in their spendthrift ways – at least for now, as Dana Milbank explained:

[Ben Bernanke] even indulged in a bit of economist humor when talking about the paradox of encouraging people to spend even though overspending caused the problem: “Somebody once called this the Augustinian principle, which says something like, ‘Let me be moral, but not quite yet.’ “

The third step is more complicated and politically fraught – as Obama seeks to tackle the third-rail of American politics – Social Security; and at the same time, health care reform; and deficit reduction; and tax reform; and possibly climate change legislation. Obama argues that this economic crisis – and the borrowing to stimulate us out of the economic crisis – have created a “fierce urgency of now” – and that all these issues must be tackled at once. 

John Harwood of The New York Times spoke with Senator Judd Gregg about this:

To protect America’s currency and its borrowing capacity, Mr. Gregg said in an interview, “the world has to be told that we’re going to be fiscally disciplined in the out years.”

Efforts to tame long-run entitlement spending may find more Republican support than Mr. Obama achieved on the stimulus. “He has extremely fertile ground in the Senate,” Mr. Gregg said, crediting the president’s early outreach and “courageous position of saying the can’s been kicked down the road long enough.”

Yet despite the bipartisan consensus that these issues must be tackled, here is where the real disagreements should be. Contra George F. Will who argued constantly that the stimulus bill and banking and mortgage bailouts should be opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats on based their principles, the initial stimulus and other emergency measures should only have raised principled objections from those with an unflagging belief in the free market – which describes only a minority of Republicans. These measures violate the ideologies of both parties – as big business is bailed out and the market is intervened in. There were issues to be raised as to what the most effective methods of dealing with the crisis were – but to oppose measures wholesale as the Republicans did – indicates a lack of seriousness.

The real debate should come now as we decide the shape of things to come and address the moral and political and long-term issues instead of the emergency measures taken to attempt to stimulate the economy.

But in this challenge is an opportunity, as Richard Florida explained in The Atlantic:

The Stanford economist Paul Romer famously said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” The United States, whatever its flaws, has seldom wasted its crises in the past. On the contrary, it has used them, time and again, to reinvent itself, clearing away the old and making way for the new. Throughout U.S. history, adaptability has been perhaps the best and most quintessential of American attributes. Over the course of the 19th century’s Long Depression, the country remade itself from an agricultural power into an industrial one. After the Great Depression, it discovered a new way of living, working, and producing, which contributed to an unprecedented period of mass prosperity. At critical moments, Americans have always looked forward, not back, and surprised the world with our resilience. Can we do it again?

David Brooks writes with both concern and a carefully measured dose of hope:

[Obama's] aides are unrolling a rapid string of plans: to create three million jobs, to redesign the health care system, to save the auto industry, to revive the housing industry, to reinvent the energy sector, to revitalize the banks, to reform the schools — and to do it all while cutting the deficit in half.

If ever this kind of domestic revolution were possible, this is the time and these are the people to do it. The crisis demands a large response. The people around Obama are smart and sober. Their plans are bold but seem supple and chastened by a realistic sensibility.

Brooks is still concerned about how this may turn out. As are we all. 

With tonight’s speech, Obama will begin to craete his legacy – beyond fixing the problems accrued during Bush’s tenure. He will begin to, at long last, deal with the stability issues raised by the combination of FDR’s New Deal revision of the social contract and Reagan’s counter-revolution, as he sets a fiscally sane course for the future. In the midst of this crisis, if Obama is to be the leader we need him to be, he needs to see the opportunity to re-write the social contract and create a more stable economic, financial, and international system. Tonight is his chance to make that case. 

Here’s hope it is not wasted.