Tuesday, August 3, 2010

It's Getting Harder to be a Liberal Democrat

Robert Reich thinks the Democratic Party’s electoral predicament is a matter of backing policies that are ambitious enough to excite fervent opposition, but not ambitious enough to inspire enthusiastic political support:
“A stimulus too small to significantly reduce unemployment, a TARP that didn't trickle down to Main Street, financial reform that doesn't fundamentally restructure Wall Street, and health-care reforms that don't promise to bring down health-care costs have all created an enthusiasm gap. [Democrats have] fired up the right, demoralized the left, and generated unease among the general population.”
That points to a politically debilitating feature of the Democratic Party’s current agenda: its core objectives can’t be realized in a continuous series of measured, politically unambitious, steps. That’s a problem in a system like ours in which public decisions are largely the unwilled product of a collision of the wills of separate political constituencies, each with its own power base, conception of the common good and political interests. Even when it controls all the political branches of government, a party is seldom positioned to achieve 100 percent of any of its core objectives. Legislative politics obliges every player to accept half-way measures when they’re lucky, and quarter-way measures when half-way measures aren’t attainable. Such a system rewards people who have the kind of objectives that can be achieved incrementally, in a series of baby steps.

The modern Democratic Party’s policy agenda isn’t like that. Take ObamaCare. It’s designed to socialize the risks and costs associated with making high quality health care universally accessible by, among other things, enabling people with pre-existing conditions to get affordable health insurance. Yet there’s arguably no way to get there from where we are now without either pole vaulting all the way to a single-payer system or at least broad jumping to a system with a robust public insurance option. As it is, Democrats are still paying the political price for jumping the still considerable distance to an insurance mandate that requires people to pay substantial fines for not buying health insurance from a private carrier. That didn’t leave them with much political capital left over to finance the giant step to carbon pricing required to make any progress on climate change or to a comprehensive system of border control and amnesty to make any progress on immigration.

I don’t think Democrats find themselves in this position because their leaders have let them down. That’s what happens to liberals after they’ve already picked the low-hanging fruit in a mixed political economy. Democrats had bigger legislative majorities than they do now when they passed Social Security and Medicare and those programs started small only to be expanded in baby steps to their present, fiscally unsustainable, dimensions. Every progressive step beyond that generates fewer net beneficiaries relative to the rest of the population and imposes a more noticeable cost on the people obliged to finance the benefits without experiencing a noticeable improvement in their own prospects. And don’t even mention the fact that the financing has to be done with borrowed dollars.

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