Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wonks and Ideologues

In the course of a political obituary for Cap-and-Trade, Ezra Klein reminds us that, not very long ago, there was substantial support within the Republican Party for controlling CO2 emissions through an emission-permit-trading system. Indeed, John McCain was still proposing something along those lines as late as the 2008 election. Now the mere suggestion by a Republican politician that CO2 emissions present a public policy challenge will get him excommunicated from the Republican congregation.

Substantially the same thing happened in connection with the individual mandate as an instrument of health care reform. In the early 1990s, it was an integral part of the thinking conservative’s alternative to a single-payer system. Ten years later, the individual mandate was an essential feature of the Massachusetts health care reforms that Mitt Romney hoped to ride all the way to the 2008 Republican presidential nomination as the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani. Now it’s the albatross around Romney’s neck.

The abruptness of conservatives’ change of heart on these issues makes Klein, and a lot of other liberals, think that Republican opposition to Obama administration’s main initiatives has had less to do with principled ideological convictions than with cynical partisanship (my emphasis):
“So the question has to be how the Republican Party swung from a position of partial support for efforts to address global warming to unified opposition. But you won’t find the answer by looking into environmental politics. After all, the same thing happened to the individual mandate in health care, which went from being a Republican position in the 1990s and 2000s to a policy Republicans considered an unconstitutional monstrosity in 2010, and deficit-financed stimulus, which Republicans agreed with in 2009 but turned against in 2010. This 'you’re for it so we’re against it' phenomenon is increasingly common in politics, and not limited to any one issue. Cap-and-trade is, for now, a casualty of the way party polarization has become policy polarization. And no one one has yet developed a reliable strategy for interrupting that process.”
I don’t doubt that there’s something to what Klein’s saying. When they were still licking their wounds after the 2008 election, Republican partisans had to be wondering how strenuously they could afford to oppose the initiatives coming from Democratic congressional leadership and the White House. They soon found through a process of trial and error (first with the Stimulus, then with Card-Check and ObamaCare) that there were substantial political rewards to fighting the Democrats every step of the way, even when they were embracing the policy approaches with a conservative provenance. As far as Klein is concerned, that shows that Democrats were more than willing to split their ideological differences with Republicans in the interest of getting something done on the public policy front, but Republicans wouldn’t play ball. All the tea-party rhetoric about the Democrat’s assault on individual liberty was just ideological icing on a partisan cake.

You can’t begrudge Klein his wonkish frustration that sensible public policy is being held hostage to cynical partisanship. But I think he’s missing the ideological forest for the public policy trees by confusing the scope and the methods of government regulation. Most ideological contention between liberals and conservatives is about what facets of individual conduct the government should and shouldn’t regulate. Once you’ve decided to subject some part of our social life to public regulation, liberal and conservative wonks get into the act by arguing, largely among themselves, about how to go about it. Their suggestions then get incorporated in party platforms, usually without drawing much attention from either ideologues or partisans.

If you had to characterize the state of ideological play since the early days of the New Deal in a few words you could be forgiven for saying that liberals have won most of the arguments over the scope of government regulation while, for the last twenty years or so, conservatives have been winning most of the wonkier arguments over regulatory methods.  Environmental policy bears this out. When a Republican administration passed the Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, it was surrendering to the liberal argument that the federal government had to get into the business of protecting the public from environmental degradation because individuals exercising their private law remedies couldn’t do the job. But by the 1990s, wonkish conservatives had persuaded wonkish neo-liberals that, if you were dead set on controlling, say, sulfur dioxide emissions, you’d be better off doing it through a decentralized emission-permit market than through the command-and-control approach contemplated by the original Clean Air Act. The liberal wonks who designed Democratic health care and CO2 proposals took those lessons in conservative wonkery to heart.

The idea that, ideologically speaking, Democrats have been meeting Republicans more than half way is a lot more plausible if you’re talking about the methods of public regulation rather than its scope. Cap-in-trade may be a market-based remedy to global warming.  Yet, any way you slice it, the idea that CO2 is a pollutant eligible for regulation by the EPA is a massive expansion of the scope of government regulation. As such, it predictably excites heated ideological opposition from conservatives and demands a vigorous ideological defense from liberals.

Yet Democrats mostly let the wonks in their ranks do the talking on the assumption that, ideologically speaking, Cap-and-Trade is no big deal.  No wonder they lost.

1 comment:

Dave said...

It's either foolish or disingenuous for Klein to immediately jump to the conclusion that the only (or even most likely) explanation for a party's change in position has to be political gamesmanship.

Circumstances change. For instance, the recession has increased our sensitivity to the potential job-depressing aspects of cap-and-trade legislation -- thus when Republicans (and Democrats) weigh the costs and benefits of such legislation, they now give more weight given to that downside, making it less attractive. Similarly, increasing the federal government's role in health care probably seemed like a better idea when the government was far less bloated and indebted than it is today.

Information changes. Perhaps the GOP felt that climate science was more "settled" in the mid-90s than it is today. Perhaps Climategate changed a lot of minds? Or the failure of many earlier climate predictions to come true? Similarly re the stimulus, perhaps the failure of the 2009 stimulus to have any obvious job-creating impact was considered by some legislators to be a relevant piece of new information when evaluating the merits of the 2010 stimulus bill.

Parties change. A party isn't one guy who changes his mind; it's a broad group of loosely-aligned factions that each wax and wane in their influence, often in unpredictable ways. Perhaps Obamacare spurred the Tea Partiers into activism, and as a secondary result, their other views became a stronger force within the party (e.g. anti-cap-and-trade views, general libertarian sentiment). People also move in and out of parties. If Obama attracted independents to the left, it stands to reason that those who remained on the Right would now be farther right, on average.

There is a self-correction mechanism for "mistakes". It may be that the apparent shift in the GOP position is because GOP rank-and-filers voted out moderate Republicans *because* those moderates supported things that they themselves opposed -- things like individual mandates, stimulus spending, and cap-and-trade.

It's also self-serving to automatically assume that the GOP's "true" position is the more liberal one; and that the GOP's now-more-conservative position is the "false" one. Even if there is political gamesmanship afoot, it could just as well be true that the GOP was always against cap-and-trade and the individual mandate, but in the past they had to compromise that position for political reasons -- and it's only now that they consider it politically viable to express their true feelings. After all, as recently as December, Obama supported a deal that gave "tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires". Am I to believe that's what he truly wants, deep down in his gut, and that his recent polemic against such tax cuts is nothing more than a nakedly political attempt to pick a fight with Republicans?