Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Party agendas, responsibility, and punishment

History seems to be repeating itself. In 2008, Democrats were elected by wide margins nationally after running on a platform emphasizing health care reform and fixing the economy. So once they were in power, they reformed health care and attempted to fix the economy, and then were punished heavily for doing so in 2010. The Republicans were put in charge of the House that year after running on a platform of fiscal responsibility. Once in power, they voted for the Ryan budget outline, which called for drastic decreases in federal spending on expensive items like Medicare. And now they're starting to get punished for it.

Did the GOP fail to learn the lessons of the Democrats? Was this avoidable? Well, that all depends on your view of a party's responsibilities.

In theory, the Democrats could have avoided some losses in 2010 by not doing anything on health reform. Sure, they would have still suffered due to weak economic growth and President Obama's relative unpopularity, but it might have been less of a slaughter if so many members in moderate districts hadn't voted for ACA (although it's hard to know the demoralizing effect on activists of failing to act on a longstanding priority). But would that have been the responsible thing to do? The party has been advocating for health reform for decades and suddenly found itself in control of the White House, the House, and 60% of the Senate. Even if they had known in advance about the drubbing they would take for it, would that have been a valid excuse for inaction?

And please don't suggest that they could have reformed health care in a less controversial way. Any effort to restructure a seventh of the economy is inherently controversial. The plan Obama ended up pushing was seen as the moderate, uncontroversial approach just a few years earlier only because no one was opposing it at the time. In a polarized environment, any effort made by one party to do something this big is going to encounter significant opposition.

Similarly, would it have been responsible for the Republicans to not push something like the Ryan plan this year? Republicans have been criticizing Medicare essentially since it was created, and any serious effort to deal with long term budget deficits -- something that Republicans promised to do when they ran in 2010 -- will have to address Medicare in some fashion. Now, they didn't have to do it in precisely this way, but it looks like they were being responsible. That is, they knew this plan would be unpopular but felt they had to push it.

I'd suggest that the alternative -- irresponsible parties that propose something in a campaign and then avoid acting on it in order to stay in power -- is far worse for representative democracy. Campaigns would become meaningless and politicians would be utterly unpredictable. The fact that we have parties that actually seek to deliver on campaign promises is something we should be celebrating.

5 comments:

Robert said...

"I'd suggest that the alternative -- irresponsible parties that propose something in a campaign and then avoid acting on it in order to stay in power -- is far worse for representative democracy. Campaigns would become meaningless and politicians would be utterly unpredictable."

I agree, and the conclusion it points to is that the problem is not with the elected but with the electorate. It's the voters who make campaigns meaningless and who are utterly unpredictable because we pay only sporadic attention, are easily distracted by sideshows, make wholly unreasonable and often contradictory demands ("taxed enough already!" "balance the budget!" "keep your government hands off my medicare!"), and then are outraged when those demands are not instantly met.

Seth said...

I don't know that I'd put it that way, Robert. A political system consisting only of party activists would be insufferable in many ways. Half the electorate would always be convinced the economy was tanking; the other half would always be convinced we're enjoying Heaven on Earth. Typical voters bring a level of reality to the whole thing. You actually can't convince them that things are great when they're not.

There's no reason that the government needs to do everything the public wants it to do, but nor should the public be completely ignored.

reflectionephemeral said...

"Republicans have been criticizing Medicare essentially since it was created, and any serious effort to deal with long term budget deficits -- something that Republicans promised to do when they ran in 2010 -- will have to address Medicare in some fashion. Now, they didn't have to do it in precisely this way, but it looks like they were being responsible."

I dunno, that sounds like the soft bigotry of low expectations for Republicans.

First off, they passed Medicare Part D in the Bush Jr. era, so it's hard to say they've always hated Medicare (tho of course the did at its creation, with Ronald Reagan warning that it meant Socialism and the end of the American way of life).

Second off, "the deficit" is something everyone always says they don't like. The reason that Medicare is a long-term budget problem is the same reason the US economy altogether has long-run problems-- the US_only astronomical and skyrocketing cost of health care.

The GOP's declared approach-- "for ten years, we'll do nothing, adding to the deficit over current projections. Then, we'll stop paying for health insurance for seniors! Problem solved!"-- was not a serious engagement with the policy problem.

I mean, it was *something,* sure, better that than pushing for a war on Venezuela, or something. But... given that the GOP ran in 2010 on saving Medicare from evil Obama (just check Paul Ryan's quotes from '10), it's hard to say that this proposal is what they said they'd do, or that it is reasonably calculated to address the policy problem underlying Medicare's long-term budget issues.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I'd lump the Ryan budget in with "avoiding action on it to stay in power."

Because any reasonable observer (or legislator) knew that there was no chance whatsoever that it would become law, it wasn't a serious attempt to reduce the deficit or anything else. It was a stunt, allowed to proceed by a Speaker who is worried about the gaggle of semi-crazy Tea Party people who just won election and a bunch of Representatives who are worried about the crazier Tea-Partiers in their districts.

And, I think, the Thrush piece supports this. Boehner had to do something strong to retain the support of the Tea-Party-elected members, and members were afraid that the Tea Partiers might run another O'Donnell against them in their next election.

This is less "responsible" and more the fiscal equivalent of a birther bill.

Seth said...

You make a good point, Reflectionephemeral. Still, given that the GOP has long been running on a platform claiming that we must curb the federal government's spending and its role in our lives, it shouldn't be too shocking when they vote to do exactly that.

Anonymous, there are different ways of looking at this. You're right that they knew that vote wouldn't go anywhere in the Senate, making it just a symbolic payoff to the Tea Partiers. At the same time, that looks doubly suicidal: they cast a damaging vote without getting any of the policy payoff for it. Democrats at least got health care reform.