Blogging is a little hard today. Pretty much the only topic on people’s minds is the tax cut deal, and how much can you say about that? Well, as it turns out, a little bit more! So here are two thoughts. Thought #1 is courtesy of Noam Scheiber, writing about White House political aides who say the president didn’t push hard on a tax deal over the summer because the Senate just didn’t have the votes:
The operatives were rightly put off by the cowardice of Senate Democrats. What they didn’t grasp was the structural advantage of a White House in framing a debate. The West Wing’s reluctance to exploit this advantage was a bitter irony given that polls showed Obama to be highly effective on the tax question as a candidate.
I just don’t think that’s right. The framing ability of the White House is pretty overrated in general, and it’s especially overrated when the roadblock is a handful of senators who don’t need much of anything from the president and can’t really have their arms twisted. Maybe Obama could have done more, but this was fundamentally a problem with Congress, not the White House.
Thought #2 comes from Andrew Sabl, who takes on the question of what liberal opponents of the tax deal propose to do next if it’s voted down. Andy says he doesn’t really have a great answer here, but that his focus is largely on the long term, not the immediate future: “how can we change baseline expectations so as to achieve progressive outcomes in future negotiations?” Dave Dayen makes a similar point here.
I haven’t thought this through carefully, but 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.
In any case, Andy’s whole post is worth a read, especially his second point, which I think is a genuine and growing fracture point within the liberal coalition:
Civic republicans vs. non-republican liberals. Civic republicanism (small “r,” of course) is an awkward label for a common position: that the fundamental issue of our time is the ability of the rich, and corporations, to game the political system and prevent the rest of us from exerting true self-governance….In contrast, a non-republican liberal position is that giving material sustenance to the poor is more important than whether the rich get paid off, however regrettable and undeserved that is.
Andy describes himself as “mostly a liberal but with growing sympathies for republicanism,” and I’m pretty much in the same place. Maybe a little further along, in fact, though I still find myself nearly always supporting compromise positions that genuinely help people in the here and now. The last couple of years have certainly put a dent in that attitude, though. The rich have rubbed our faces a little too hard in the fact that they simply have no interest in what’s good for the country, only what’s good for their own bank accounts.