Saturday, January 31, 2015

The cold war of politics requires a change in character

What rational, reasonably intelligent, young adult now aspires to be a politician who wishes to hold national office in the not too distant future?  How many who are leftward leaning can answer in the affirmative to that question?

One thing not commented on about the State of the Union was the audience in the chamber, specifically regarding their age.  To my eyeballing, many of the Democrats shown are senior citizens.  One wonders who will replace these champions when their time is up.  Dodd and Frank are already gone.  Evan Bayh, who left the Senate some years earlier, wrote about what it was like to serve in the then current environment.  Not fun, to say the least.  Have things gotten better since?  I sincerely doubt it. Elizabeth Warren, the exception to the rule, is a feisty newcomer.  More of her ilk would be welcome.  But she is from among the bluest of blue states.  Can her approach work elsewhere, say in Indiana where Bayh is from?

Another part of the turnoff is the seeming elevated importance of money in politics, especially in campaigns (but also the lobbying, which gets less attention).  The fund raising happens primarily with a narrow constituency - the big contributors.  They aren't giving their money without expecting something in return.  The environment makes it especially difficult for a political newbie to adhere to her principles and yet be successful running for national office. This issue has been with us for some time.  For example, The Candidate was aired on cable TV a couple of nights ago.  But it has intensified a good deal since that movie first appeared.  Why would a self-respecting person willingly embrace the pretense?

Still another aspect of current life in national office is how much of the time is spent in idle posturing and how little time is spent crafting legislation that has a realistic chance of becoming law.  The reason for this, of course, is gridlock, which is now the feature of the divided government we've come to expect.  This is especially true if it is a Democrat who is President but either of the Houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.  (TARP was passed in 2008, with a Democratic Congress but a Republican President.  So a bipartisan approach was possible then.  Of course, there was a sense of exigency then due to the financial crisis.  It is unclear whether a bipartisan approach would have been functional otherwise.)  Does one want to run for office while holding a rational expectation that gridlock will be the rule, once elected?

* * * * *

Apart from the quality of their aspirants for the Presidency, the Republican party clearly has the upper hand, at present.  They have a distinct advantage on fundraising.  Citizen's United has been a major boon for them.  They have an easy to understand message - reduce the size of government, taxed enough already.  They seem to have mastered the art of the low turnout election.  And the evidence of the success of their approach is clear.  They've gained seats in both chambers of Congress in the recent midterm elections and they now hold the majorities there, this is spite of the very low approval rating that Congress receives in public opinion polls. The strategy likewise seems to be working at the state level. The Republicans now control a vast majority of the governorships.

Demographics were supposed to favor the Democrats.  With this, the focus has been that we are moving to become a majority non-white nation.  The facts about increased inequality in the income (and wealth) distribution also support the same conclusion, provided that most eligible voters actually do vote.  Participation and voter enthusiasm was last high in the 2008 election.  One wonders what it would take to get participation rates to return to the levels they were then, especially since no other Presidential candidate is likely to have the aura that then Senator Obama had in the 2008 race.  Something else will be needed to arouse and motivate the electorate in the 2016 election and beyond.

It is that something else which is the object of this post.  In the meantime, let's refer to the Democrat's advantage due to the demographics of the electorate as a sleeping giant.  As long as the giant remains asleep, it would seem the Republicans will hold sway and do so handily.  If the giant ever awakens, it will be a different ballgame.

Let's frankly admit that at best we can speculate as to what it will take to wake the sleeping giant.  For if we did know for sure how to do this, then the Democrats would make it their playbook.  Clearly, they haven't done that.  What they've done, instead, I would characterize as a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach.  Each candidate putters around in his or her own garden, groping for the best policies to get them elected, if first time candidates, or to get them reelected, if incumbents.  The appeal to the voters is directly via the goodness of the policy the candidate advocates, but has little to nothing to do with the likelihood that policy will become law.

As a purely intellectual matter, I have nothing against this sort of puttering.  Indeed, I'm strongly in favor of it as a way to learn.  And it may have been good politics once upon a time, such as when Evan Bayh's father, Birch Bayh, was a Senator from Indiana and members of Congress behaved in a more statesmanlike and collegial way.  Then good ideas may have carried the day and the search for them would demonstrate that the candidate deserved a seat at the table. While Evan Bayh was clearly nostalgic for those times, his frustration about the present should be taken as providing an accurate current picture.  Members do not socialize across the aisle.  Instead, there is overt hostility.  This is an element of the cold war in my title.  The Democrats need a strategy that is suitable for fighting that cold war.  They need to abandon the thought that if they behave in a reasonable and collegial way, then the Republicans will echo that behavior.  That won't happen, particularly if the Republicans retain the majority.  The Republican members of Congress feel beholden to their base.  Compromising with the Democrats would be an affront to the voters who elected them.  That much should be obvious to anyone.

There is another, but related, issue that I fear plagues both parties.  This is the excessive fascination with the race for President, at the expense of all other politics.  As I'm writing this piece on the weekend of the Super Bowl, one obvious reason for why this happens is that the news media understands what sells their product.  Converting politics into a horse race is a way to increase the size of the audience.  The public has a fascination with the personalities; the public cares as much, or even more, about the individual candidates than they care about the issues.  But this encourages a Messianic view of the Presidency, particularly during the election for the first term and up to the time of assuming office.  It is then implicitly assumed that the President will shape the agenda, not vice versa.

The problem with this, especially from the perspective of the Democrats, is that it can readily produce divided government.  (Now the likely scenario is that Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes President but Congress remains under Republican control.)  Divided government sustains the gridlock that we've experienced since January 2011.  Gridlock frustrates the voters.  A rational forecast of this outcome then in no way encourages the sleeping giant to awaken.

So a different approach is needed.  I have suggested such an approach in a companion paper, How to Save the Economy and the Democratic Party - A Proposal.  As that paper goes into some detail in outlining the approach, here I simply want to articulate what any such approach needs to do, so if there are some things about my proposal that readers don't like they can proceed with their own rewrite of the proposal in a way that is constructive.

The economic policy part of the agenda must be articulated in advance.  The Democratic candidates need to be seen as embracing that much of the agenda.  This needs to be true for both the Presidential candidate and candidates for Congress.  This gives a reason for voters to exercise the franchise.  That reason is to advance the economic agenda and make it law that is implemented.

Potential voters need to have a basic understanding of the economic agenda.  They must come to believe that it will be effective in improving the economy overall and making them each better off as well.  So much effort needs to be put into giving potential voters that sort of appreciation.

Democratic candidates then become foot soldiers to advance the agenda.  They may continue to putter on social issues and on foreign policy, but on the core economic agenda they march in lockstep.  It is in this way that character changes, both of the individual candidates and of the party as a whole.

The two prior paragraphs create necessary conditions for what the agenda must accomplish.  It doesn't have to be perfect; but it does have to be good enough.  It doesn't have to address all economic issues in one fell swoop.  But it does have to set priorities about which economic issues should come first.  It then does have to address those early economic issues. 

One should reasonably ask, where does this economic policy agenda come from, if it doesn't come from the individual candidates themselves?  We might be able to agree a priori at the very broad strokes level that the policy must be about economic populism, what the President called middle class economics in his State of the Union address.  And we might agree that somehow infrastructure needs to be part of the picture.  But the devil is in the details and a real agenda has the details fully worked through.  Alas, it will not fall as manna from heaven.  Somebody needs to write it.

Much of my companion paper is devoted to a way for coming up with that agenda.  President Obama commissions a process for the development of this agenda.  Well known economists are enlisted to develop the economic policy.  Congressional leaders are enlisted to manage how such policy can be enacted into law and in suggesting what, if any, restrictions on the policy might be necessary to enact it.  (To make this part more concrete, recall that when the Affordable Care Act was being enacted, the Public Option was abandoned so the rest of the legislation could be passed.)  Financial leaders are enlisted to deal with the issue of what is happening at the state and local government levels;  contraction there likely will offset benefits of an activist Federal government economic policy.  And yet one more group is enlisted to consider how shovel ready projects can proceed at the get go or soon thereafter. 

The remaining part of the paper is about diffusion of the ideas in the agenda.  The diffusion effort is of equal importance to the writing activity.  Only if the agenda is well known and broadly understood might it serve its intended purpose.

* * * * * 

Would Democratic candidates embrace the change in character that is discussed here?  As with the question of whether the approach would wake the sleeping giant, I must admit that I don't know the answer to that question.  Let me review the reasons why they might and then close.

(a)  Because the Republicans clearly have the money advantage, the Democrats need something else to offset that advantage.  The agenda is meant to give the Democrats the idea advantage.

(b)  The setting of the agenda up front gives candidates some way to push back at big donors without offending those donors horribly.  If what the donors want runs contrary to the agenda, the donors will come to expect this push back.  In this way, the candidates can run more principled campaigns.

(c)  Recent past failure suggests a need to embrace a different approach.  The setting of the economic policy agenda up front fits that bill for a new way of doing things.

(d)  That the unemployment rate has now fallen below 6% but many working families are still struggling to make ends meet tells us that there are some fundamental problems with the economy that need to be addressed and that doing so is not politics as usual but rather a noble mission.  The discussion over the last few years about economic inequality and particularly the furor around Thomas Piketty's book emphasize this point. 

Finally, let me note that I personally care more that the country has sensible economic policy than that the Democrats hold the majority.  As I said in the companion paper, I would welcome the emergence of moderate Republicans who embraced the economic ideas.  I don't want this political cold war to be ongoing if it can be brought to closure.  But I certainly don't want it to be brought to closure prematurely, by capitulation to current Republican views about the economy, which I find toxic.  At present we're in the midst of battle.  Let's see if we can win this thing.

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