Monday, July 19, 2010

Democratic Cognitive Dissonance

Responding to this post, a perceptive reader asks (my emphasis):
“The Democrats have huge majorities in both the House and Senate, and hold the Presidency. In my view, the recent historic legislative achievements (whether you applaud them or not) are a reflection of those majorities, not of Obama's competence or actions. If we must place credit (blame), it would be foremost Congress (after all, these are "legislative" achievements), and if we must personalize that credit, I'd start with Nancy Pelosi. . . .

So why is it that we point to all of these actions as Obama's successes (or failures)? . . Personally, I think the President has a bigger role to play, and comes off looking more successful, when the opposite party controls Congress.”
That’s a good question and an acute observation.

Take the year-long decision-making process that culminated last spring in healthcare reform. Obama spent the whole year being coy about his priorities; he wanted healthcare reform to be impressively comprehensive, but he wouldn’t say, for instance, how important it was to have a public option, a Medicare buy-in, or what he thought was the best way to fund it. From all appearances, the will of several strategically placed congressmen (starting with Nancy Pelosi) figured as much or more prominently in the eventual shape of the healthcare bill than the president’s, although not prominently enough to make it an expression of any particular person’s will. Yet we still call the final product ObamaCare and number it among Obama’s principal achievements/mistakes. (You could tell substantially the same story in connection with the stimulus bill passed early in 2009.)

The reader points to a respect in which that’s a fiction that hadn’t occurred to me. The larger a president’s legislative majority, the less mindful he has to be about the preferences of the political opposition. For the last eighteen months, Obama’s congressional majority has been large enough to enable him to govern without having to secure the consent of any Republican on healthcare reform or the consent of more than three Republicans senators on the stimulus bill. He has never had to compromise with Republicans the way that Bill Clinton did after the Republicans took over congress in 1994.

Yet, having more power over the political opposition meant that Obama enjoyed correspondingly less power over the members of his own congressional caucus. All Democratic congressmen have a stake in the success of Obama’s presidency, but most have a larger stake in facilitating their own reelection by avoiding unpopular votes. The more Democratic congressmen win election, the more there are from red-state districts standing to Obama’s right ideologically and the less crucial any particular congressman’s vote becomes to Obama’s political fortunes. That gives every congressman more leeway in defecting from the party line on an unpopular vote and makes it harder for a president to line up a majority that affirms his undiluted policy preferences. When Bill Clinton confronted the Gingrich congress, he was positioned to speak for the Democratic Party in a way that Obama couldn’t by virtue of his large Democratic majority.

Why, in the face of all of this, do we cling to the fiction that the unintended consequences of a decentralized decision-making are an expression of presidential will? It’s partly, I suspect, a psychological strategy on the part of voters for reducing the cognitive dissonance generated by the fact that, in our political system, public decisions are mostly the unwilled product of the collision of many wills, most of which are unaccountable to each voter. Personalizing a largely impersonal public decision-making process gives us the comforting illusion that we can keep a handle on what's going on merely by deciphering the values of a single person.  And it helps us cope with dispiriting facts, like the final shape of ObamaCare having a lot to do with the uninspiring preferences of a guy like Ben Nelson, who's accountable to no one outside of Nebraska.

Obama will be the beneficiary of that psychological defense mechanism to the extent that the policy output of the last eighteen months is popular and its victim to the extent it’s not.


Dave said...

I'm the "perceptive" (thanks for that!) reader you mention at the top of your post. I appreciate the response: it's somewhat surreal to have my own thoughts echoed back to me -- yet far more clearly elucidated than I had originally thought them in my own head.

After the midterm elections, we'll probably find out how Obama governs when faced with a Republican (or split) Congress. I expect we'll find a lot more unity among Congressional Democrats, but I do wonder if Obama will be an asset or a liability to their efforts. Given how much of a partisan figure he has made himself in his first two years, he may have poisoned the well for GOP cooperation on anything he headlines. If so, his best strategy may be to stay out of the limelight -- if that's in his playbook.

Ron Replogle said...


Nice to have a name to attach to the comment. Please keep sharing your thoughts.