Thursday, March 17, 2016

Can Hillary Clinton convince an "off center" nation to elect her President?

I like Jacob Hacker's and Paul Pierson's work a lot. Their book Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy (2005) is one of the best analyses I've seen on Republican obstructionism and how they've successfully used it to control the general political narrative. Or framing, to use George Lakoff's preferred term.

They have a new one coming out at the end of the month, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper. So I don't want to blame them for the New York Times' editing of this article of theirs, Clinton’s Bold Vision, Hidden in Plain Sight?. 03/169/2016. But this passage stated like this feeds into one of the worst, most misleading assumptions of the media's Both Sides Do It script:

In the middle decades of the 20th century, this pragmatic problem-solving mentality had a prominent place in both parties. Some issues were deeply divisive: labor rights and national health insurance, for example, and civil rights. Nonetheless, a bipartisan governing coalition that included leaders from both business and labor proved remarkably willing to endorse and improve the mixed economy to promote prosperity.

This Bipartisan Golden Age was only that way because ideological divisions crossed party lines. Particularly because the most explosive issue, white racism and its effects, had the segregationist Southerners as part of the Democratic Solid South. There were also not just moderate but *liberal* Republicans. Am I dating myself too much by remembering that Republican Senators like Jacob Javits and Mark Hatfield became leading opponents of the Vietnam War? Paul McCloskey, anybody? (Okay, that really *does* date me!)

That party configuration is dead, buried, gone with the wind. Hacker and Pierson have a much more nuanced view of the situation than that one paragraph might indicate. I'll be curious to read their new book.

Hacker and Pierson in Off Center came up with a useful term, "cheap bipartisanship," to describe the striking difference in party unity in Congress between Republicans and Democrats, while the Republicans get to practice "cheap moderation." But as you can see from this description, even the space for "cheap moderation" on the Republican side has largely disappeared since then:

... there are actually some significant rewards - both political and material - for becoming the occasional Democrat who crosses party lines. Just as moderate Republicans can gain by staging carefully crafted "revolts" against their leadership (revolts that, in the present Congress, are rarely more than symbolic), moderate Democrats can gain by showing their "independence" on issues they loudly trumpet as crucial to the nation's future. Former Senator John Breaux of Louisiana and current Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut made names for themselves with their eagerness to assume this mantle. What makes these moments of statesmanship so valuable for Democrats like Breaux and Lieberman is not just that they get cast in the spotlight as defenders of the bipartisan way (even when their participation provides the only evidence of bipartisanship). Equally valuable, the dealmakers get to nudge policy in directions that advance their political needs. Such nudges, however, have in recent years almost never gone beyond marginal adjustments to primarily Republican-crafted bills. Cheap moderation has its counterpart in cheap bipartisanship. (p. 171, my emphasis)
Things have shifted drastically on the Republican side. But the appeal of Bipartisanship on the Democratic side is still strong.

And the factors producing that appeal were present even before the Citizens United decision raised them by a couple orders of magnitude:

Although the two parties have both become more cohesive, there remains considerable truth to the old Will Rogers joke about the Democratic Party's basic organizational deficiencies. ("I am not a member of any organized political party; I'm a Democrat.") In crucial areas, from fundraising to congressional leadership to the fervor of the base, the Democratic Party is both less centralized and less networked than the contemporary Republican Party. Individual Democrats, when they have enjoyed power at all, have much more jealously hoarded their autonomy than have the Republican rank and file – a reality on display repeatedly in Clinton's two terms. Moreover, big money is a strong unifying force for Republicans, but it in produces considerable cross-pressures for Democrats. Important elements of the standard Democratic agenda, especially on economic issues, coexist awkwardly with the realities of contemporary political finance, which require that Democrats seek support from deep-pocketed business contributors. ... there are exceptions to these generalizations. But they are just that: exceptions. Democrats still have a hard time escaping the Tower of Babel. (pp. 169-170, my emphasis)
Which brings us once again to the One True Thing David Frum Ever Said, "while Republican politicians fear their base, Democratic pols hate theirs." (Gibbs on the Left FrumForum 08/10/2010)

Unfortunately, Hacker and Pierson fall into echoing the Clinton camp's present-day political slogans:

The fiercest attacks [on government] come from the right: In apocalyptic terms, conservatives attack government as an enemy — not an essential complement — of markets. Yet the left has its own sources of skepticism. Calling for a “political revolution,” Mr. Sanders casts government as so captured by powerful interests that only a popular upsurge will right the situation. This stance may not have the same anti-government tenor as conservatives’, but it sets up an impossibly high standard for reform and slights government’s continuing achievements (including the much-maligned Affordable Care Act, which has broadened coverage without driving up health prices).

We are trapped in a vicious cycle: Disillusionment encourages dysfunction, and dysfunction empowers those who spread further disillusionment and dysfunction.
That dismissal of Sanders is really superficial. The prissy shock at Bernie's use of the term "revolution" is particularly silly in today's political context.

The Reagan Revolution. The Gingrich Revolution. A Supreme Court-enabled political coup in 2000. Every living Republican in 2016 talking about how we have to have unlimited gun proliferation so we can fight gubment tyranny. Il Duce Donald and his Storm Trumpers aping Nazi rallies and threatening to riot at the Republican Convention if the delegates don't all submit to the New Order. One side in the US is more than comfortable with the word "revolution." But the Democratic side gets all queasy when Bernie Sanders talks about a "political revolution" by which he clearly means to get more people to go vote? We may have to stop talking about an intensity gap and use "intensity chasm" instead!

Their dissing of Bernie's message sits awkwardly with their main point, though. Which is that Hillary Clinton will have a difficult time making a strong case for affirmative government because of the way she has framed her public career and this campaign:

Mrs. Clinton is heir to an enormously successful bipartisan governing tradition. Yet this tradition has been disowned by the Republican Party and has lost allure within a significant segment of the Democratic Party; it also runs sharply against the grain of current public sentiments about government and politicians. In this hostile environment, it should come as no surprise that Mrs. Clinton has proved reluctant to lead the charge for a more balanced discussion of government’s role.

Still, however understandable, this circumspection comes at considerable cost. Mrs. Clinton’s mixed-economy philosophy is what most clearly distinguishes her from both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump, and most clearly marks her as an heir to President Obama — who, notwithstanding conservative charges of socialism, has mostly sought to adapt and update existing policies to address pressing problems like global warming, unaffordable health insurance and uneven and poor school quality. Mrs. Clinton’s proposals not only have popular appeal, but they also could be financed with relatively modest tax increases (the bipartisan Tax Policy Center calculates that they will increase revenues by around $110 billion a year over the next decade, with almost all the increase borne by the richest households).

Yet because Mrs. Clinton has had little success articulating her basic governing approach, the case for her has instead come to seem almost entirely instrumental — that she has the best chance of being elected or would be better at haggling with Republicans for incremental gains. In the context of widespread amnesia about what has made America prosper, pragmatism has come to be seen as lacking a clear compass rather than (in the original meaning of the word) focusing on what has actually proved to work in the real world.

This is a problem, and not just for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. Our nation badly needs a dialogue that reminds Americans why a capable government is essential and how much we are paying for its erosion. Mrs. Clinton understands this, but she may have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to say it. [my emphasis]

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