Monday, March 28, 2011

Who’s Winning the Battle over the Budget?

I’ve written some about how we miss the ideological forest for the electoral trees (see, e.g. here). Electoral politics is waged between political parties that are pretty good at crafting political agendas calculated to win elections by securing the allegiance of the median voter. There are, to be sure, activists in each party who care more about ideological purity than winning the next election. That’s why Democrats sometimes nominate people like Alan Grayson and Republicans sometimes nominate people like Christine O’Donnell to run futile campaigns in competitive districts. Yet most people who take an interest in politics care enough about winning elections to subordinate ideological purity to tactical advantage when it’s a matter of maintaining his side's electoral competitiveness. So when one party loses a national election badly (as the Republicans did in 2006 and 2008 and the Democrats did in 2002, 2004 and 2010), it’s usually pretty good at crafting a new agenda that pries swing voters out of the other party’s uncertain grasp.

That’s why, if you look at politics over the last twenty years as a contest between the parties for control over the government, you see competitive balance. If you look at politics as a war of ideas over how best to run the country, however, the state of play looks very different. The parties might be passing the allegiance of the median voter back and forth over successive elections, but if you were to plot the position of the median voter in successive elections on a single ideological spectrum, you’d detect a pretty substantial rightward movement.

Here's one crude measuring stick:  twenty years ago, health care reform that looked a lot like ObamaCare was an approach to dealing with the uninsured population and spiraling health care costs proposed by mainstream Republicans as a responsible alternative to HillaryCare. Now having championed that approach is a political albatross around Democratic necks.

So far, the current battle over the budget is looking like another case in point. The Democrats may well succeed in maneuvering Republicans into the same political trap that Bill Clinton sprang on Newt Gingrich, viz., being blamed by a lot of voters for shutting down the government in the name of fiscal restraint. But let’s try to keep our eye on the ideological ball. Who’s winning the ideological argument over the size of government and the public policy argument over the shape of discretionary spending?

Ezra Klein points us to the regrettable answer:
"Back in February, Paul Ryan unveiled what was supposed to be the opening bid from the House Republicans: $32 billion in cuts for the rest of 2011. But the Tea Party demanded more and House leadership quickly caved, doubling their proposed cuts to more than $60 billion -- or almost $100 billion less than Barack Obama’s 2011 budget request . . . .  Now Democrats are offering as a compromise measure $30 billion in total cuts, or exactly what Ryan’s original proposal had called for. Pretty neat, huh?

"And that’s not the Democrats’ final offer, either. . . . [T]he irony is that it’s entirely possible the press will report that Democrats “won” the negotiations, as Republican leadership is likely to have to lose a lot of conservative votes in the House to get any compromise, no matter how radical, through the chamber. That will make them look bad, and in the weird logic of Washington, make the Democrats look good."
It looks to me like the irony is lost on a lot of Democrats captivated by Washington's "weird logic."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All of this is windowdressing -- a few billion here and there is not what matters and is not what is going to matter. Who's going to start talking about cuts to Medicare, raising the retirement age, etc? I guess it's not going to happen this time around. But with all these wars going on, the deficit is only going to keep getting bigger until we go bust. Dems know that they can avoid it now and let it blow up later, hopefully on a Republican's watch. That's why Harry Reid said a few weeks ago that he didn't even want to talk about Social Security for about another twenty years. He will either be dead or long since retired -- either way -- it won't matter to him.

Is this the height of irresponsibility?

In any case, whichever party deals with entitlements first is both the most serious party, and the one most at risk electorally.