Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls
from: althouse.blogspot.com

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Two steps forward, one step back?

My first reaction to the proposed deal, on tax-cuts and UI benefit extensions, between President Obama and the GOP was to shake my head at how badly our side got rolled. President Obama was like a guy who walks into a used car lot, intent on buying a red Chevy. He tells the dealer: "I don't think I should pay more than $7,000 for that red Chevy. Of course, you should also know I have $10,000 in my wallet. Anyways, that looks like a nice stereo in there... too bad listening to music makes it hard for me to drive. O.K., if it helps you sell me this car I guess you could pull out the sound system. By the way, my cousin is a mechanic so I won't be needing that 60 day warranty..." It's hard to imagine less skillful negotiating than the embarrassing performance we've just witnessed. Yet Kevin Drum makes a strong case that even a master deal-maker would have a hard time in this environment:

I think there's a big problem with this framing. It assumes that our weakness is mostly with negotiating tactics: Democrats need to demonstrate that they're willing to accept a whole lot of wreckage if they don't get their way, and once they've done that Republicans will realize that they have to start compromising.

But there are two problems with this. First, there's a real asymmetry between liberal and conservative goals. Liberals want active change. This means they can't just obstruct. They have to figure out a way to build a supermajority coalition for complicated legislation, and that means compromise. And everyone knows this. So compromise is baked into the cake. But conservatives, to a much larger extent, are often OK with simply preventing things from changing, either as their first best or second best position. For that, all you have to do is maintain a very simple position among a minority caucus. No real coalition building or compromise is necessary.

Second, political coalitions are simply too public to sustain an artificial bargaining posture. The problem with the Democratic caucus isn't that they negotiate badly, it's that the Democratic caucus is genuinely fractured. And again, everyone knows it. You can't pretend you're willing to go to the mat against high-end tax cuts when there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts and Republicans know there are half a dozen Democratic senators who support high-end tax cuts. To fix this, you need more liberal Democrats, not tougher leadership.

The problem with trying to make deals and collaborate with big-money backed politicians is that they think they can buy enough votes to stay in power, no matter how irresponsible their behavior. Bribing and appeasing them only makes our party seem equally corrupt in the eyes of many voters. Standing up to them, even when it provokes tantrums from the right, is the only thing that will motivate voters to turn out for Democrats in 2012. Drum is right that the Democratic caucus isn't united on every issue. Yet there are indeed clear differences between the parties. Only Republicans insisted that budget-busting tax-cuts be handed out on income over a million dollars per year. While some Republican voters applaud this, a majority of Republicans do not. Of course, how to cut through the Faux News noise to inform average Americans of what their Republican representatives are actually doing in Washington? The only person with a "bully pulpit" from which to proclaim the truth and be heard is President Obama himself. If he's simply unwilling to engage in fierce partisan debate, then he will have to live with disappointing results.

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