A newly elected young chief executive is trying to follow through on his democratic mandate by securing passage of a piece of legislation designed to change the political landscape. While it’s broadly consistent with the main themes of his campaign, the bill has controversial features that he didn’t campaign on. The polls tell him that a substantial majority of the public, including a sizable number of people who voted for him, disapprove of what he’s now proposing to do.
The political opposition, energized by the same polls, exploits every available procedural technicality to stop him, even when it means violating prevailing (but decaying) norms of fair play on the part of the loyal opposition. Yet, exploiting some procedural loopholes of his own, our determined chief executive pushes the bill through anyway on the theory that having put his political pennies on the table, he may as well stay in for a pound. His incensed political opponents vow to devote all their political energy to undoing the damage.
The preceding paragraphs are inspired by the decision of Wisconsin Republicans, led by Governor Walker, to push through a “non-financial” bill restricting public employee collective bargaining rights last night over the opposition of absentee Democratic senators. But they apply just as well to national Democrats’ decision last year to push ObamaCare through the Congress over unanimous Republican opposition at the urging of President Obama. In each case, a conviction politician came to a fork in the road that presented him with the choice between running substantial political risks to achieve a longstanding ideological objective or bowing to conventional wisdom that taking that turn would be politically suicidal and therefore ideologically self-defeating. Both Obama and Walker managed, despite the polls, to persuade themselves that they'd reached a political inflection point at which the best way to do well politically is by aggressively doing good ideologically.
I suppose that it’s logically possible that they're both right. The Wisconsin and national electorates look similar enough, however, to make it a lot more likely that both Obama and Walker are wrong. If so, our politics will continue along its normal path despite them, drawing energy from each party's ideological base, but turning electorally on which party can capture ideologically innocent independents through triangulating strategies.
Yet, judging by the current conduct of partisans on both sides, it looks more likely still that for the foreseeable future our politics is going to be driven by hopes and fears on both sides of ideological barricades, that either Obama or Walker is right and the other is delusional. That means a politics in which ideologues on both sides throw themselves into a battle for the hearts and minds of independents.
I couldn't tell you whether, if that's true, that brand of zero-sum politics is good for the country. But it certainly makes things interesting for those of us who like to think of politics as a battle of ideas.