Thursday, February 04, 2010

Don't panic! (contd.) - Jonathan Chait patiently explains some political facts of life

Or, rather, he explains them once again. None of these points is really new, none of them is especially esoteric or implausible, and none should be difficult to grasp--in fact, though some are debatable, most are fairly undeniably correct. Nevertheless, they bear repeating, if only because so many people seem unable to keep them in mind, or else are determined to willfully ignore them.

So Jonathan Chait is performing a service by spelling them out clearly one more time (in the latest New Republic, dated February 18, 2010). Some highlights:
The perception has formed, perhaps indelibly, that the reason Democrats will get hammered in the 2010 elections is that the party moved too far left in general and tried to reform health care in particular. [....]

While the Democrats may have committed sundry mistakes, the reason for their diminished popularity that towers above all others is 10 percent unemployment.

But political analysts are more like drama critics. They follow the ins and outs of the tactical maneuverings of the players, and when the results come in, their job is to explain how the one led to the other. [....]

If you believe that Democratic ideological overreach is the problem--“they thought the country was at a very different place ideologically,” explains perpetually quoted Republican wise man Vin Weber--then you have to undertake the following thought experiment. Imagine that John McCain won the 2008 election. (How? I don’t know--maybe Obama is caught on tape singing “Kill Whitey” to himself in a private moment.) Would McCain have more popular support right now than Obama does, because the public really wants an agenda of smaller government and lower taxes?

That’s not a very plausible scenario. Instead, most of the pundits want us to believe that Obama could have avoided a political backlash if only he’d taken a different course. Charlie Cook asserts that Obama made a “colossal miscalculation” by failing to focus on the economy, but neglects to suggest what economic policies Obama could have proposed instead. [...]
It's true that the so-called "stimulus" package (technically, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) probably should have been bigger than it was--as Paul Krugman, among others, has persuasively argued--but that's not what Obama's critics among the Republicans and the punditry have in mind.

Chait suggests, correctly, that we should begin by cutting through the bullshit and facing reality.
It’s hard to imagine any non-trivial economic policy Obama could have embraced that would have gained any Republican support. We don’t have to speculate about this--there’s a good case study at hand of a policy proposal embraced by Obama that enjoys strong support among right-of-center economists and provides clear economic benefits. It’s called his stimulus plan. More than one-third of it consisted of tax cuts. A consensus of economic forecasters believes it substantially aided the economy, and even conservative economists like the American Enterprise Institute’s John Makin agree. Yet that stimulus provoked a massive Republican outcry and provided no public-opinion boost to Obama.
To anticipate some predictable-but-misguided rejoinders: Yes, it's true that many of the specific details of the "stimulus" bill are open to serious and even valid criticisms, and there have been plenty of these criticisms by economists from both left and right of center. The stimulus should probably have been bigger, too much of it came in the form of tax cuts (a concession to Republicans and Democratic "moderates" that seems to have been a political wasted), some of the compromises that had to be made to get three Republican votes in the Senate were especially unfortunate and counter-productive, and in a more ideal world a lot of the spending could have been more wisely and effectively targeted. But none of that contradicts Chait's overall point.
The difference between the parties is that Republicans ignore the establishment’s advice. After Obama’s election, conventional wisdom insisted that the GOP would have to move to the center. [JW: Back in 2001, the punditry offered similar advice following Bush's narrow and, to put it mildly, controversial victory in the Presidential election. Fat chance.] Instead the party moved further right. And whatever the policy merits, it has worked politically. If Republicans had cooperated more with Obama, it would have given him bipartisan accomplishments and made him even more popular.
Anyone who still feels perplexed about the political dynamics of 2009 should go back and re-read the previous paragraph. Everything else, as they say, is commentary.
The GOP’s ability to ignore establishment nostrums in the face of defeat is its great electoral strength. Democrats, by contrast, have a congenital tendency to panic. Abandoning health care reform after they’ve already paid whatever political cost that comes from voting for it in both houses would be suicide. Even if Coakley loses, the House could pass the Senate bill as is, avoiding the need to break a filibuster, and tinker with it in a reconciliation bill that can’t be filibustered. The only thing preventing the Democrats from following through would be sheer panic.
So what should be done instead?
Remember the classic scene in It’s a Wonderful Life? Facing a run on his building and loan, George Bailey tries to explain to his frantic customers how to look after their self-interest. “Don't you see what's happening?” he pleads, “Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking and he's not.” President Obama’s great challenge right now is to be his party’s George Bailey.
Then, after pulling themselves together, the Democrats need to pass the damn bill.

--Jeff Weintraub

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