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Give to get? Sometimes…but not in Congress

April 30, 2010

From The Center Square blog posted a piece called Bipartisan Compromise in the Age of the Permanent Campaign: Immigration Edition today, which argues that the Democrats should abandon compromise as a tactic to win over Republican votes, and just incorporate all of their positions into legislation, as a way of creating better government and succeeding politically.

My response:

Or they could just bend over….

I think you’re missing something very very important here. Politics is the art of compromise. Typically ‘compromise’ means some sort of a trade – I give you something you want, you give me something I want. In the case of healthcare reform a fair trade would have been the public option – which many of us progressives held quite dear – in exchange for true bipartisan support.

But the Democrats included Republican ideas in the health reform legislation without demanding anything in return. What they did get in exchange was a very large, very rigid middle finger shoved down their throats (to borrow the Republican’s favorite trite stock phrase). Many of us would argue that in so doing the Democrats betrayed the will of the American people as expressed in their victory in 2008, which falls into anybody’s definition of a landslide. In any case, they (rightfully) lost the confidence of people on both sides of the aisle with respect to leadership by getting so visibly punked. That’s no way to run a country, regardless of your politics.

It’s hard to know if the Republicans were thinking long-term about the effect of their behavior on their ability to influence policy (i.e., whether they thought there wouldn’t be any sort of political price to pay), whether they just thought they could punk the Democrats (a reasonable supposition, since it’s always worked in the past), or just didn’t give a sh*t in their typical nihilistic fashion (my own interpretation). But in any case they clearly demonstrated that they don’t care one whit about bipartisanship, compromise or governance. They continued to be, to borrow a phrase from their Dear Leader (Cheney), the party of “go f*ck yourself.”

Your post positions the anti-collaborative environment as a non-partisan dynamic, arising purely out of the mechanics of the electoral cycle. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. The Republicans have practiced “my way or the highway” politics ever since it worked for them in 1994. The Democrats have tried to take the high road (and betrayed their constituency in the process, I’d argue) and have received no cooperation in return. And yet when Obama knocked heads together at the end of the health care debate he got the legislation done, got much better policy than had he caved any further, and his approval ratings went up.  So you tell me – which makes for better policy, better governance and better politics?

Politics is a rough sport. It’s been a lot rougher in recent years than it has to be – and a lot rougher than I’d like it to be, and I gather that you share my frustration. But this is entirely because The Right has chosen obstructionism, hate-mongering and outright lying as its favored set of political tactics. The Democrats were late to the party, but now that they’re starting to fight back the right is suddenly outraged. That’s a crock. The high road is most people’s preferred approach, but appeasing bullies has never worked. You need to give them a black eye, and THEN offer them an opportunity to have a voice if they change their behavior (which they generally don’t but that’s a different conversation). A sad state of affairs, but we’ve tried the other approach and it just didn’t work.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. The Center Square permalink
    April 30, 2010 3:53 pm

    I was hoping my idea would come across more nuanced than apparently it did *lol*.

    I am not arguing against compromise. I am arguing against engaging in the politically destructive dance that predominates the Congressional landscape. Democrats don’t need to sit on the couch in the basement making out with Republicans, nor do they need to sneak through the window and knife them in their sleep. Just simply govern with the best ideas out there, regardless of political origin. When that points to important right-side ideas, as it often does, include them. That IS compromise. Good, constructive, serve-the-people compromise.

    I agree with you about the Republicans of late. They have engineered a cynical definition of compromise: Let’s enact only what we can agree on. That, by definition, means enacting almost nothing, which fits their notion of government passivity very nicely. That’s what they did in the healthcare debate, and Obama got sliced to shreds by that tactic.

    The truth is, there was only one reason NOT to include multi-state insurance reforms and strong tort reform in the healthcare bill: they didn’t want to hand Republicans a win. They would not have to have watered down the bill if they had included such provisions. I’m certainly no expert on the inner workings of Congress, but don’t you kind of suspect that we could have had a legitimate single-payer plan (or at least a strong public option) if robust cost containment measures favored by conservatives had been included? The Blue Dogs would have been happy, centrist Republicans probably could have come on board. And the resulting legislation would have been so much better.

    • May 2, 2010 5:35 pm

      I think that the way that you framed your argument — that is, that the Democrats should include more Republican ideas — sidesteps the issue that the Dems have very different ideas as to what constitutes good policy than do the Republicans. From our perspective, very little of what they advocate — when they do actually advocate anything; lately it’s been almost entirely knee-jerk reactions 180 degrees opposite of anything that Obama says in an effort to make political hay — makes any sense. So trying to argue that Democrats would make better policy if they included Republican ideas just for the sake of including republican ideas contains an internal contradiction.

      Part of the problem is that lately there’s been a tendency, generally in a misguided effort to be fair-minded, to equate the Democratic approach to policy-making to the Republican one. Kind of a ‘pox on both houses’ approach. But it’s really not the case that the two parties play the game the same way…much more of what the Republicans do, as you admit, is pure politics. I’d actually like it if the Democrats did a little more of that, because I think that in this situation you really have no choice but to fight fire with fire. The old say about not bringing a stick to a knife fight.But your post struck me as resting on that premise.

      If, on the other hand, you’re making a case for REAL compromise, than you really have to have a good-faith negotiating partner with which to horse-trade.

      Another way of looking at this is that the Democrats did try exactly what you suggest. They put something like 160 (that number may be wrong, but if so it’s low — it may have been 180…I can’t remember) stated Republican ideas into healthcare reform. As I said in my piece, they gave away elements which were strongly cherished by Progressives in the hopes of priming the bipartisanship pump, and got Heisman-ed in return. MAYBE if the Republicans had responded as statesmen instead of punks to that, the two parties could have started a virtuous cycle of compromise. But to blame the Democrats for it not having happened is simply bad political analysis.

      I don’t disagree that cost-containment is important. And I agree that it could have been included in the plan IF there had been good-faith process. But the Republicans chose the other fork in the road, and their approach and good policy-making are ever and for always mutually-exclusive.

      We have a two-party system (nothing the founders ever intended, but that’s a different conversation). When one side decides to take its ball and go home because they can’t stand not being in the majority, it breaks down. That’s what’s gone on here. From what I can tell, the Democrats have tried everything — short of just stuffing the Republicans into an ever-shrinking box, which is what every political thinker from Sun-Tzu to Machiavelli to Ho Chi Minh to LBJ have agreed throughout history works — to restart the process. Nothing has worked.

      As an aside, if you study history you’ll see that this is the way that just about EVERY civil war in history has started, including ours. The policy-making process breaks down because one side thinks they can gain advantage by boycotting it, this makes matters worse, the worsening radicalizes one side (typically the losing side), a charismatic leader emerges to be their champion, and it’s off to the races.

      The current leaders of the Republican party are either ignorant of history or just don’t care enough about the nation and the hard work of the people who created what they’re supposed to be stewarding to treat it with respect. I’m not saying that the Democrats are perfect, but they display a hell of a lot more respect for the fragile institutions of our system, and from what I can tell they try a hell of a lot harder to make it work. They may well cave and toss red meat to try to appease the other side, just as Chamberlain did to Hitler. If they do, expect something similarly destructive to civilization.

      • The Center Square permalink
        May 3, 2010 5:26 pm

        “trying to argue that Democrats would make better policy if they included Republican ideas just for the sake of including republican ideas contains an internal contradiction.”

        — I agree with that. However, it is the reverse that is the problem. Ideas should not be rejected BECAUSE they originate on the Republican side. Most importantly, including them would have provided the Democrats with the high ground to implement the undiluted healthcare bill. Had I been king for a day (but still having to work with the Congress *lol*), I would have included the best Republican ideas; gone unabashedly to the public option; tell the Republicans to vote for it or not, I don’t care; and take my chances in the fall elections. The way I see it, that IS bringing a knife to the knife fight.

        Frankly, I’d much rather be a vulnerable district Democrat running on that record of achievement than what did happen. I would love to meet my district with the message that not only did I get a much stronger health plan passed, but my Republican opponent represents a party so profoundly contemptuous of you, the voters, that they wouldn’t support a bill that included their very healthcare platform. (Or, fantasy world, the Republicans fold and vote for the bill — the best outcome of all. But I haven’t been drinkin’ today.)

        I guess the simpler way to express this is, the idea is not to compromise with Republicans. That is futile. It is to neuter them by disarming them. And isn’t a neutered Republican the best Republican?

      • May 5, 2010 6:20 pm

        Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a single instance during Obama’s presidency when one could reasonably assert that he’d rejected Republican ideas just because they were Republican ideas. Here’s just one of “about 254,000” results to a google search on the term “republican ideas in healthcare reform bill.”

        I think that what disturbed me so much about your post, Steve, is the credulousness with which you echo the Republican Party’s outright lies about how the policy was made. You accept it, uncritically, as the premise for a piece in which you lambaste the Obama administration for not doing EXACTLY WHAT IT DID DO. That just kills me…I’m sorry to have to sound so pejorative, but it’s just another example of how their sleazy tactics succeed at polluting the debate.

        And likewise, plenty of Democrats did exactly what you prescribe — they took the political risk, voted on principle, and will be running on the achievement instead of running away from it.

        Your last notion is a good idea, except that in politics neutering only works when people give a shit about the truth. The Republican has been so successful at dragging the debate into the sewer over the past 30 years — at evading responsibility for the horrible policies that have gutted the middle-class, at using swiftboating to slime war heroes, at lying our way into war and subsequently lying about having lied — that you can’t “disarm” them just by being so obviously right that only a moron could miss it. You may not be able to fool all of the people all of the time, but with gerrymandering and corporate funding of political campaigns, you don’t really need to anymore. All you need is to manipulate enough people into believing that up is down — and alienate many of the rest from the process by turning it into a perpetual shit-show — to maintain 40 seats in the Senate. Actually getting things done, on the other hand, requires a much greater effort. Which is why the Republicans always win at politics.

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