Saturday, December 05, 2009

"Partisan Politics", or Party Policy?

Will Wilkinson seems a bit confused:
The choice to [promote health care reform] instead of focusing narrowly on getting the economy back on its feet and getting the unemployed back to work, amounts to putting partisan politics before the economic welfare of struggling Americans.

This is deeply deceptive rhetoric. "Partisan politics" could mean one of two things. In this context, Will presumably means nothing more than that the substantive policies in question are opposed by Republicans. But there's obviously nothing necessarily wrong with "partisan politics" in this sense. After all, it's possible for an opposition party to oppose good policy proposals -- proposals which may, for all Will has said here, do more to improve the "welfare of struggling Americans" than a narrow focus on improving the economy would. (I take no position here on the actual policy merits. I'm just pointing out that, as a conceptual matter, this objection is inane.)

Alternatively, talk of "putting partisan politics [first]" may be taken as an accusation of bad faith: rather than trying to implement worthwhile policies, one is thought to be merely acting for "partisan gain" -- to increase one's electoral chances, or some such. This would be a very serious accusation.

The first interpretation makes it easy to claim that one's opponents are "putting partisan politics first". The second interpretation makes "putting partisan politics first" sound like serious wrongdoing. One can understand why a partisan hack would thus be tempted to equivocate in this way. What I can't understand is why Will would want to sound like a partisan hack.


  1. I don't understand why you're confused. By "partisan politics" I meant pursuing a strategy to implement deeply controversial policies your party favors. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with partisan politics as such. I am saying that there is something wrong with partisan politics *during a recession* when the substantive policies at issue are *institutionally transformative*. This kind of legislative fight very predictably creates uncertainty about the rules of the economic game going forward, which very which predictably chills investment activity, which very predictably hampers economic output. Sure, the contested policies *could* in the long run improve economic welfare more than drawing out the recession will harm it. But you're going to believe that this is so only if you're already extremely confident about the consequences of those policies, and such (generally unwarranted) confidence is most likely to characterize, as you say, partisan hacks. To elect to start not one but several predictably extended uncertainty-inducing rows when the economy can least tolerate additional uncertainty is likely to appear to partisan Republicans *and* most not-very-ideological "independent" voters to be irresponsibly risky government. That's why I think that this line of argument will be effective against Congressional Democrats if the economy does not show signs of dramatic improvement by fall of next year.

  2. Will - I would expect many Democrats to be genuinely confident that their transformative policies will prove extremely worthwhile. (One may, of course, be a 'partisan' in this sense without being a partisan hack.) This substantive view of theirs is at least not obviously unwarranted. You disagree on the substance, perhaps, but I don't see any principled objection here. The economic circumstances just introduce an additional cost that needs to be factored in to the cost-benefit analysis. It's hardly decisive.

    Now, insofar as you're merely pointing out that this additional cost might sway centrists to disapprove of the reforms, fine. But your rhetoric suggested something rather more inflammatory than this modest claim. Whatever your intended meaning, the quote I highlighted clearly gains rhetorical force from the invited equivocation. (Do you really not see this? I'm not the only reader to have commented on it.)

    Just as it behooves politicians to avoid the appearance of corruption as well as the real thing, so (I expect) it behooves political bloggers to guard their reputation for integrity by taking care to steer well clear of the sorts of equivocal phrases and misleading connotations that hacks would exploit. Hence my bafflement at your employing the phrase, "putting partisan politics before the economic welfare of struggling Americans." It's not a phrase I'd expect from a non-hack.

  3. Richard,

    "I would expect many Democrats to be genuinely confident that their transformative policies...This substantive view of theirs is at least not obviously unwarranted. You disagree on the substance, perhaps, but I don't see any principled objection here."

    As far as I understand Will, perhaps the principle objection, put in prosaic language, is look before you leap. Put another way, leaving out moments of crisis, the size of the change should be inversely proportional to the speed at which it's put forth. In a family situation, a frivolous purchase may not be discussed at all: an expense that changes how 1/6 of a family economy is spent would be discussed at length. I infer that Geithner wants to push medical legislation through so business can be stable. Wilkinson is arguing, I think, that the stability Geithner wants to encourage can't come at the expense of reasoned debate on such a consequential matter.

    That's what I took away from Will. Is this not a principled stance?

    Toolbit out.

  4. I agree that Mr. Wilkinson's language is at least infelicitous. The point, however, is that attempting to push through legislation that would almost certainly have a significant effect on the economy as a whole while that economy is already in the throes of a major recession suggests a failure to appreciate the trauma, if you will, on an already seriously ill patient and perhaps also a conscious decision to give priority to long term social policy over the immediate needs of the economic.

    No doubt Democrats generally believe their best hope of 'reforming' the U.S. health care system is greatest now and will only decrease as time passes. They may also genuinely believe that such reform would have a long term salubrious effect on the economy. I believe they are correct as to the first and wrong as to the second; but I seriously doubt anyone seriously believes that such legislation would have an immediately positive effect if only because, as Wilkinson notes, it will be institutionally transformative and thus predictably have a chilling effect on the market.

    The question, then, is whether Democrats and the Obama Administration are hellbent, as it were, to strike while the iron is hot regardless of the immediate or short term consequences of their major policy initiatives and whether that constitutes irresponsibility bordering on or tantamount to recklessness.

  5. What if the Democrats had decided to wait on big reforms, and changed their plan to "we'll wait a few years, and then we'll do health care reform when the economy is doing better?" Wouldn't that also have produced a lot of uncertainty about the institutional future of our health care system? There might have been even more uncertainty than we have now (since right now the legislative process is focusing on a relatively narrow set of possibilities), and presumably it would have been longer-lasting uncertainty.

    It was clear in 2007 that health care reform was a Democratic priority (including for our eventual President). That plus Democratic ascendancy over Republicans implies uncertainty, and it seems difficult to reduce that uncertainty without either passing the reform or having the reform fail.


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