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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Cynicism (cont'd) and Political Mendacity

In my last post I discussed two substantive areas of my life in which I’ve experienced a real disillusionment over the decades – the law and finance – but I neglected to mention one other important area of disillusionment:  politics.

I know, I know . . . I am revealing myself as a naif and a heretic from the Church of the Savvy, which is the only way one should properly understand politics:  with a knowing cynicism that the only thing worth discussing in politics is Who is Up and Who is Down.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t really start paying attention to politics until the 2000 presidential race.  Until then I had assumed that everything I had been taught in what passes for civics class these days – high school social studies, undergraduate political philosophy classes and, I suppose, my Constitutional Law classes – was more or less accurate.  Specifically, that different groups of people have different ideas about how the country should be run, that they argue these ideas in the legislature and in election campaigns, and that this by and large is how the will of a majority of American citizens is implemented.

Like I said . . . naive.

It is simply astonishing to me how baked in our acceptance of deep political mendacity and a refusal to engage in good faith debate has become.  For example, Kevin Drum has argued several times that there is nothing surprising about the GOP’s decision to abandon its previous support for a health insurance mandate and to insist instead that such a thing – originally a Republican idea – is, in fact, an unconstitutional blasphemy. 

Drum argues that the GOP has always believed the best thing to do about health insurance is nothing, but that back in the 1990s it looked like the Clinton healthcare plan might actually pass.

          So what’s a Republican to do?  The answer is obvious:  choose whichever option is the best one available at the time.  If Clinton’s plan looks like it might pass, you support the next best alternative:  private insurance with a mandate.  If private insurance with a mandate is on offer, you once again support the next best alternative:  nothing.  There’s not really anything mysterious about this.  You don’t need to resort to cynicism, motivated reasoning, or even a genuine change of heart to explain it.  You merely need to realize that political actors – both liberals and conservatives – will always fight for the best deal they can get.  If you offered me Obamacare, I’d take it, but that doesn’t mean I’d give up fighting for what I really want.  Likewise, after conservatives defeated Clintoncare, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t just rest on their laurels, but kept on fighting for what they really want.

(emphasis added).

All of that is true enough, so far as it goes.  But I think Drum slips in a significant false equivalency here, and that relates to how liberals and conservatives go about fighting for what they want.

During the health care debate, actual liberals were very vocal about the fact they wanted a public option included in the proposed bill.  Like Drum, most were willing to take Obamacare if that were the only option presented, but the amount of liberal outrage and our sense of betrayal when Obama took the public option off the bargaining table was palpable.  There are plenty on the Left who are willing to accept Obamacare but still feel it doesn’t go nearly far enough – and we’ve been vocal about letting that be known.

This is not how the Right debated the merits of Clintoncare.  Again . . . the individual mandate was a Republican idea.  Back in the 90’s the GOP told the rest of us that they, too, were concerned about out of control health insurance costs, but believed that the appropriate way to address them was by requiring everybody to purchase health insurance – subsidized if necessary – thereby increasing the insurance pool with the addition of low-risk insureds, and let the market work its magic.  In other words, Republicans told the American public that the real choice for reforming health insurance was between a public option and an individual insurance mandate, and that they favored the individual insurance mandate.

Foolish liberals – foolish Obama Administration – to take them at their word.  Because as soon as Obama took the public option off the table in an effort to reach the Village Holy Grail that is Bipartisanship, the Republicans immediately changed their tune.  Not only did they not support an individual mandate, they considered such a plan absolutely unconstitutional.

(Much the same thing happened with negotiations over greenhouse gas emissions.  Back in the 90’s the Clinton EPA was considering establishing some hard and fast limits on the amount of carbon dioxide individual factories could pump into the air.  The GOP argued that the government should instead sell “greenhouse gas permits” that would limit greenhouse gases overall; companies could then trade these permits between themselves, and market magic would allocate greenhouse gas limitations most efficiently.  Of course, now that liberals have come around to the GOP’s cap-and-trade program, the GOP has repudiated it.)

The difference between liberals and conservatives when it comes to policy arguments is clear:  liberals may disagree with conservatives when it comes to policy, but they argue in good faith.  According to Drum, not only do conservatives fail to argue in good faith, but none of us should be surprised at their mendacity.

For a representative democracy, this seems to me to be a pretty big problem.  How can we possibly craft responsible public policy, choosing between competing interests, if we cannot know exactly what those real choices are?  According to Drum, back in the 90’s the real policy on display were (i) passing  Clintoncare, or (ii) doing nothing.  If so, then that is what the debate should have been about.  But it wasn’t.  Instead a false alternative was provided, which allowed a significant number of people to think that maybe the alternative would be preferable to Clintoncare – which then failed to pass.  If this is what happened then the entire rationale for our representative government was undermined, because there was no way for policymakers to accurately assess the policies that were really up for consideration.

Chris Hayes discussed this on his show over the weekend.  He talked about a meeting he had with a Democratic lawmaker who explained to him (and this is from memory, so my phraseology may not be entirely accurate) that we are now living in “a post-truth policy concession world.”  What he meant was that our political media has been sufficiently captured by the right-wing noise machine that the granting of policy concessions has absolutely no political effect on reaching legislative consensus.

For example, Hayes pointed out that illegal immigrant deportation skyrocketed under President Obama, and that Obama specifically explained in a State of the Union address that this was intended to demonstrate that the administration took the issue of illegal immigration seriously.  Consequently, Obama explained, he expected the parties to come together in Congress and address real immigration reform.

But, of course, that didn’t happen.  Just as giving up the public option on Obamacare didn’t prevent the GOP from claiming that the Affordable Care Act was a “complete takeover of health care by the government,” so too did Obama’s willingness to deport 400,000 undocumented workers fail to prevent Republicans in the Senate from filibustering health care reform. 

(Of course, now that Obama has announced a DREAM Act-lite by executive order, Republicans are faulting Obama for failing to pass the DREAM Act itself.  Political reporters dutifully transcribe these claims and present them to the American public, without ever bothering to point out that it was in fact the Republicans who killed the DREAM Act.)

Of course, none of this is really new to “amateurs” like me and most of the progressive blogosphere, who follow politics closely.  We’ve been screaming for years that the GOP quite obviously is not negotiating in good faith, and that when Democrats grant policy concessions the only result is that “”acceptable” policy goals just get moved further to the right.  And maybe the Obama Administration is finally – finally – figuring this out.  But, if so, what’s the likely effect?

Well . . . I see two things. 

First, if Democrats can actually give up their high school social studies book learnin’ and really internalize the idea that the GOP no longer negotiates in good faith, then during those periods when the Democratic Party can set the agenda – when, say, they control the White House and at least one Congressional house – it should stop them from making any more pre-emptive policy concessions. 

If Democrats had assumed going into the health insurance reform negotiations that Republicans had never really been serious about supporting an insurance mandate, then Democrats would never have offered one.  Instead, they could have demanded a public option – let the Republicans bring up the health insurance mandate – and then compromise with them and pass the health insurance mandate on a bipartisan basis.  Democrats’ willingness to concede policy ground early in the negotiations – in a gesture of good faith – only made bipartisanship agreement less likely.

Second, during those periods when the GOP sets the agenda – if, say, Romney wins the White House and the Republicans take back the Senate – then Dems can adopt the same mendacious but successful strategy Republicans adopt:  either insist on policies that are the polar opposite of what Republicans want, or refuse to argue in good faith.  

For example, when Republicans argue for the complete elimination of the capital gains tax, Dems can counter that the tax instead should be raised until it is at least the equal of income tax rates.  They can then compromise on keeping it the same.  Alternatively, the Dems can argue that the current tax is perfectly fine and that it shouldn’t be changed, and then bide their time until they can take office again and try to raise it then. 

The one thing they shouldn’t do is be hoodwinked into compromising by lowering the tax to, say, 5% and then boasting that they prevented it from being eliminated completely.  Because the next year the Republicans would be back, arguing again for its complete elimination and asking – quite rightly – what’s the difference a 5% tax makes anyway.

* * *

For obvious reasons, I think it would work a terrible disservice to our country if both parties decided that the only way to make policy was to argue in bad faith.  That prevents the American public from understanding the real stakes at issue in these arguments.

But, funnily enough, I kind of also think that if everybody understands the rules of the game, then nobody is being deceived.  Policy making will just become even more a kabuki theater; and while the American people might not be able to follow the plot, at least the actors will understand their roles.

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