Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Never Let an Electoral Bloodbath Go to Waste

At the beginning of the Obama administration, Rahm Emanuel famously cautioned Democrats not to let “a serious crisis go to waste.” He was speaking less as an ideologue than as a cold-blooded political strategist. That was his way of reminding his political comrades that economic calamities can generate rare political opportunities to effectuate longstanding ideological aspirations.

By the same token, an ideologue should never let a stinging electoral defeat go to waste. He’s never going to find a better time for re-examining old assumptions about how best to promote his core values under the constraints imposed by the political economy. That gives a self-conscious liberal every reason to ask whether there are any lessons to be drawn from this month’s election, not only about what’s politically possible, but about what’s desirable.

Obama and Nancy Pelosi have been doing their level  best to discourage any reflection along these lines, understandably since any ideological recalibration will be an acknowledgment of failure on their part. In their view, the policies that are most often cited in explanations of Democratic electoral losses, ObamaCare and Cap-and-Trade, are the sort of things that Democratic politicians were put on this earth to enact. If pressed, they might concede that they could have done a better job of selling them to an electorate traumatized by economic uncertainty. And maybe they made a strategic mistake by not waiting until the economy was in better shape to put them at the top of their policy agenda. But what’s the point of having a Democratic Party if it isn’t willing to take its best shot at addressing scandalous inequality in the delivery of health care or the prospect of catastrophic environmental degradation when it has control of the White House and both houses of Congress?

Like most liberals, I find it hard not to sympathize with this view. But no one needs reminding that we were in substantially this position after the 1994 election handed Republicans control of both houses of Congress and a stunning rebuke to Bill Clinton. Liberals who switched their allegiance from Hillary Clinton to Obama during the 2008 presidential primaries got in the habit of thinking of the triangulating ways of the Clinton presidency as an uninspiring example of grubby politicking under challenging political circumstances. They still tend to forget that Clinton had come to Washington at the head of a New Democratic cohort that had thought long and hard about the self-defeating features of traditional liberal social policy.

Granted, when he said that “the age of big government is over” Clinton was trying to soften the ideological edges of his image so as to win back the non-liberal voters who’d punished him in the 1994 mid-terms. But he was also telling his liberal comrades that they wouldn’t get back into the game politically until they reconciled themselves ideologically to an agenda that addressed the social pathologies of the welfare state and the growth-inhibiting consequences of traditional liberal economic regulation. Clinton wasn’t, like today’s Blue Dog Democrats, just advising Democrats to water down their egalitarian commitments to win back independent voters. He was telling them that, if they were really serious about promoting equality, they’d have to figure out more effective ways of doing it in a modern political economy.

I’m not saying that the ideological lessons of the Clinton presidency are lost on the Obama/Pelosi wing of the Democratic Party. Compare its agenda over the last two years to, say, the liberalism of a Ted Kennedy. ObamaCare wasn’t ever envisaged as the single payer bureaucracy that he’d been dreaming about his whole political career. And Cap-and-Trade was expressly designed to minimize the cost of regulating CO2 emissions through a reliance on relatively unfettered market mechanisms rather than the wisdom of EPA bureaucrats. 

But it’s one thing to design enlightened social policy on the drafting board of a think tank, and another thing entirely to enact it into law through legislative sausage-making. There’s no getting around the fact that any version of Cap-and-Trade that would have done appreciable environmental good was dead on arrival in the Senate even when the Democrats had a veto-proof majority. And although liberal health care proposals might have done a world of good as originally designed, no liberal really has the foggiest idea of how the 2000 page monstrosity that we now call ObamaCare will work.  Democrats are now paying the political price for delivering, or trying to deliver, on liberal promises.

The big story of the last two years, then, has been the yawning disparity between pious liberal intentions and the actual legislative outcomes that emerged under the most favorable political conditions liberals have seen for over forty years. Liberals need to think long and hard about either adapting their ideological aspirations to the realities of the modern political process or reforming the political process to make it more adaptable to their ideological aspirations.


Osama Von McIntyre said...

Do you have concrete suggestions?

Anonymous said...

I have a suggestion - liberals should have gotten rid of Nancy Pelosi. She is the wrong person to head the minority in the House. That would be a good start.

Anonymouser than Thou said...

Really! In what way is she the "wrong" person? She has been fabulously successful at getting consensus as a cat herder, and she led the Democrats out of the woods from 2006 til now. She is conceded to be a pretty good tactician by all parties, and--especially with the blue dog purge after the election--is pretty representative of the Democratic caucus.

Ron Replogle said...

OVM: This is as concrete as I'm prepared to get. First, give up on "comprehensive" measures like ObamaCare and the financial reform bill that exceed the deliberative and legitimizing capacities of the legislative process and punt most of the important decisions to administrative agencies that are likely to be captured by organized interests over time. Concentrate instead on reform bills of the smallest passable scope with the least delegation of rule-making to executive branch. Second, be prepared to spend a lot of political capital on changing Senate rules at beginning of the new legislative session. Third, to the extent possible, shift the locus of substantive policy-making (as opposed to bureaucratic implementation) on important issues from Democratic Senate leadership to the White House.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymouser (great name, by the way): I just think Pelosi is symbolic of all that is wrong with the far left of the Democratic party. I think if Democrats want to have success in persuading what seems like a country that has shifted back to the center, Pelosi is not the one to lead the Democrats. Agreed that she is representative of the Democratic caucus. However, I'm making my point in response to RR's post about what liberals need to do now.

Anonymouser than Thou said...

To Just Plain Anonymous (I'm glad you like my name):

The leader of the House (or minority, now)_ is an "inside" job: Pelosi is out front because she was put out front by Republicans. The job of the leader is to organize his caucus, and to make them effective, and she has been inarguably effective at that.

It doesn't really surprise me that a conservative thinks that the Democrats should choose another House leader: I would prefer that the Republicans replaced John Boehner with Olympia Snowe. That would demonstrate their commitment to centrism.

This is clearly ridiculous. The Democrats will pick their own leadership, with their eye primarily on effectiveness.

Only from a conservative catseat could Pelosi be considered "far left" (unless you watch Fox News). She is pretty close to what a mainstream Democrat was in the 70s and 80s, and she's not far from the center of her caucus. As such, she's representing the Democratic constituencies as they would like to be represented.

For the record, I think that what the Democrats need to do is articulate a set of principles clearly, and stick by them.

Osama Von McIntyre said...


I agree that "comprehensive" reforms can be politically deadly, but in the two bills cited, it was regulation of large, economically important economic sectors, both of which have the means and inclination to find the next loophole, and the next, and the next. Piece-by-piece regulation would have ended up with a decades-long version of Whack-a-Mole, as each successive loophole was discovered, exploited, and ultimately plugged.

I live in Orange County, and there are a lot of very conservative people here. When talking to them about health care, I have found that the vast majority of them would have been more okay about a single-payer, nationalized healthcare system than the ultimate Obamacare bill. It is the insurance mandate that gets under their skin more than anything else, the compulsion. So raising taxes and providing "free" health care would have been a preferred alternative.

As for the rest of your concrete measures, I pretty much agree. The two "comprehensive" bills were so complex that no one understands what's in them, and for those given to a reflexive mistrust of government, the presumption is that that fact alone will guarantee failure.

One part of your reply that I did not understand: you think that Democratic legislators should "punt most of the important decisions to administrative agencies that are likely to be captured by organized interests over time" ??? Are you being too dryly sarcastic for me to register? Or are you hinting at some other point?

Ron Replogle said...

OSM: I wasn't being sarcastic. I was just saying that one of the delegitimizing features of "comprehensive" bills is that, for all their unfathomable and unconsidered complexity, they usually still authorize bureaucrats to make lots of arbitrary decisions--like the HHS waivers from ObamaCare requirements--that end up being a pretext for paying off favored constituencies. That undermines the rule of law.

Osama Von McIntyre said...

Ah! I apologise.

First, give up on "comprehensive" measures like ObamaCare and the financial reform bill that exceed the deliberative and legitimizing capacities of the legislative process and punt most of the important decisions to administrative agencies that are likely to be captured by organized interests over time.

That sentence is something like the optical illusion where you see either the vase or the women's faces. I was seeing the vase!