Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Playing Hardball

Republican senators are refusing to confirm an Obama appointee to head the Consumer Protection Board unless changes are made to the underlying statute on the grounds that they don’t like it any better now than they did last year when the Senate passed it with a bipartisan majority. Any way you look at it, this is a pretty outrageous tactic.  Republicans aren't at all embarrassed willfully to disregard key terms of a legitimate public decision reached only last year.

That moves Jonathan Bernstein to the following observation:
“GOP practice, for the last twenty years or so, has been to play the "game" of politics in part by looking through the rule book for strategies that go beyond the norms of politics but are allowed under the literal reading of the rules. Examples include mid-decade redistricting, the recall of a California governor for no particular reason, and impeaching Bill Clinton. And, most notably, filibusters in the Senate as a routine measure. The idea is that in a normal, healthy, political system there's always going to be some gap between the written Constitutional and statutory rules on the one hand, and norms and practices on the other. A clever political party can gain occasional short-term advantages through exploiting that difference. . . .

“I suppose I should also mention that [this] is a destructive practice that places short-term partisan gains over the stable functioning of democracy, and that people shouldn't do that sort of thing. But once one side begins, there's really no good option other than fighting back.”
Let's not get hung up on the issue of whether Bernstein’s memory, and therefore his sense of outrage, are selective. I’m sure Republicans would be happy to remind him of, say, Democrats’ unprecedented decision to start filibustering Circuit Court nominations just because the manifestly over-qualified Miguel Estrada would have made such an attractive Supreme Court nominee or Obama’s decision willfully to opt out of, and probably destroy, the system of public financing for presidential general elections just so he could exploit his monetary advantage over John McCain in the 2008 general election. So let’s stipulate that both Republicans and Democrats have sinned, and been sinned against, in this regard and leave it at that.

Bernstein’s still right to say that, no matter who does it, acting so as to undermine a political norm, the general observance of which redounds to everyone’s advantage over the long run, is a civically irresponsible thing to do. It leaves the other side with the unenviable choice of letting itself be taken advantage of, renouncing the same norm itself in retaliation or violating some other relevant norm as a way of securing compensation for the other side's misconduct (e.g., a president’s disregarding the norms governing recess appointments in response to a minority party’s unwillingness to allow a vote on one of his nominees).

Civic morality in this connection is a matter of upholding elemental fairness.  It commands us to do our part in sustaining mutually advantageous political arrangements, but not to offer ourselves up to be played for chumps by our political opponents. Generally speaking, it’s less a matter of doing unto your political opponents as you’d have them do unto you, than of doing unto them as you reasonably expect them to do unto you given what they’ve done unto you in the past. 

That makes it perfectly rational, and not civically irresponsible, for political actors to adopt a strategy of “tit for tat” in the game of politics, doing in their next move something analogous to what the other side did on its last move. When both sides respond rationally to a transgression on the part of one side or the other, however, they invite retaliation that tears the fabric of benign mutual expectations that sustains a Madisonian political system. That’s how we end up with the kind of political dysfunction we’re seeing in connection with raising the debt ceiling.

That makes it sound like the evolution of the kind of political norms Bernstein has in mind is a one-way street from political innocence to civic corruption. As a matter of general principle, however, that can’t be true. If it were, there wouldn’t be any unwritten political norms for partisans to disregard. These can only have presented themselves for betrayal by partisan politicians because they evolved out of prior political interactions at a time when politicians weren't any better citizens or moral specimens than they are now. The norms governing budgetary politics that have broken down so conspicuously in the last year and one-half, for example, emerged out of a fight between Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress over the impoundment of congressionally appropriated funds.  Say what you will about the Nixon years, but they weren't anybody's idea of an Edenic age of political innocence and civic piety.

So while politicians may respond in kind to the other side, they still have an imperfect civic duty to find occasions for inviting the other side's cooperation when they can do it without jeopardizing the public good by their own lights or paying an exorbitant price in partisan advantage.  Is it really too much to ask of our politicians that they aspire to the civic standards of the Nixon era?

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