Tuesday, August 18, 2009

When Politics Eclipse Policy

I had planned a belated post on the Torture Memos, but it will have to be even more belated, because the whipped-up hysteria over healthcare reform is becoming more and more disturbing. In fact, mendacity and sheer insanity of the protests is becoming so disturbing and so far out of bounds of what was formally acceptable debate that the tone of the protests is beginning to eclipse the issue itself.

What is so disturbing and out of bounds here?

Certainly not the existence of the dispute. I do not doubt that Republicans have sincere, principled disagreements with the Democrats' proposal. Nothing wrong with that. That is politics as usual and might, by itself, even be amenable to compromise. Two factors prevent compromise. One is a matter of policy -- Democrats and Republicans and ideologically incompatible views of how to handle rising health care costs -- regulate more versus regulate less. The other is political -- the opposition party wants to thwart the ruling party to keep it from looking successful. Ideologically, Republicans fear that universal health care will go badly. Politically, they fear it will go well. But this dilemma, too, is nothing new or, by itself, especially disturbing.

What is disturbing is the outrageousness of the lies being told about this proposal, how broadly they are being spread, the willingness of the senior Republican leadership to go along with them, the the hysteria they are whipping up. Yes, a certain degree of spin, distortion and deception is a normal part of political debate. When Bill Clinton came out with his own health care proposal, there was a great deal of discussion among opponents about the horrors of single payer, but no acknowledgement that he was not, in fact, proposing a single payer. But there was nothing at the time like accusations of "death panels" pulling the plug on Grandma, comparisons to Hitler, and even remote insinuations that the elderly, the sick and the handicapped would be murdered. Yes, there have always been fringe groups of paranoids who held beliefs like this, but these are views being propagated, not by fringe groups, but by mainstream channels like talk radio and Fox News, and being pushed (well, usually hinted at in such a way as to maintain plausible deniability) by mainstream Republican leaders. The Republican leadership quite simply has decided to sever any ties to real world fact and just shriek out any lie that serves their purpose. Such a breathtaking level of cynicism is both new and alarming.

Also alarming are the angry crowds showing up, believing these outrageous lies, shouting down anyone who disagrees with them and even packing heat. Granted, there have not been actual outbreaks of violence. But telling an armed man that Obama wants to kill your grandmother is playing with fire.

Even more disturbing is that shrieking blatant lies seems to be working. One might dismiss a recent poll saying that support for the bill before Congress has fallen to 36% in favor an 42% opposed. More disturbing is that fully 45% of all respondents at least partially believe in the "death panels." And, although respondents are about evenly divided in their opinion on the protests themselves, the critical independents say 50% to 34% that the protests have done more good than harm. The protests, in other words, are swaying, rather than repulsing, swing voters. As one commentator remarks, "[I]t creates an enormous incentive to lie, blatantly and repeatedly, to the public. There are no real penalties, and the number of Americans who'll believe nonsense skews the debate in the liars' direction." This means that whenever any other major Democratic initiative comes up, Republicans will repeat the tactic.

So what is the agenda? Well, in the short run, presumably to shut down a Democratic Congress, to make it impossible for Democrats to pass any major initiative. Presumably the goal is to drive the base into a frenzy and associate Democrats in the mind of swing voters with ineptitude and inability to get anything done. The short run goal is presumably to win Congress in 2010, just as the Republicans did in 1994, and to win the White House in 2012.

But there is a problem here. Whipping the base into a frenzy and turning swing voters off of Democrats as inept is not really a good long-run strategy. Frenzies are exhausting and not sustainable. And if the Republicans do win a majority in 2010, they would do well to remember the lessons of 1995. Upon taking over Congress, Republicans promptly overreached. Demonizing Democrats can win elections and turn voters off of the Democratic agenda, but it will not win any converts to the Republican agenda. No one much liked what Gingrich and his crowd were trying to, and Bill Clinton rebuilt his Presidency by standing up to the Republican Congress.

The long-run goal, presumably, is to continue working on Karl Rove's project for a permanent Republican majority. Needless to say, the 2008 election was a setback to that goal, but to judge from the level of hysteria the Republican Party and its media allies are seeking to whip up, it apparently has not been abandoned.

From the very start, Rove's plan was not structurally sound. Permanent* control of the government by one party is stable only if that party enjoys a strong majority of popular support. And over the long haul, that sort of support is sustainable only by enacting sound policies and competently implementing them. Rove wanted to take a country fairly evenly divided between the parties, muster 51% support for Republicans, and exclude the other 49% from power entirely. To do this, he focused on ignoring moderate swing voters, rallying the base, demonizing nearly 49% of the population, and enacting policies based on their appeal to favored constituencies, without much regard to their effectiveness. The result was a general ineptitude that turned an evenly divided population sharply against Republicans and their ideas. Yet the Republicans show no intention of changing their policies.

So how do you build a permanent Republican majority when your party does not command majority support and your ideas are widely unpopular? To judge by the hysteria currently being whipped up, the answer appears to be to undermine and delegitimize the Democrats, by fair means or foul. Demonize any Democrat who has the unmitigated audacity to usurp the Presidency. Turn their presidency into a frenzy of accusations and ugliness. Proclaim the Big Lie on Fox and across talk radio. Make it impossible for Democrats to pass any significant legislation. Whip up the mob if they appear to be succeeding. And explain that given the level of oppression underway, you completely understand the returning militia movement.

Granted, none of this will actually make Republican ideas or their implementation any more palatable. But it may at least be more palatable than the paralysis and orgy of recrimination accompanying a Democratic government. What we are seeing now looks like an attempt at permanent Republican majority by blackmail -- vote for us, or we'll shut the country down.

You think the hysteria in the Clinton years was bad? You ain't seen nothing yet.
*By "permanent" here I do not actually mean until the end of time, and do not think Rove meant it that way either. Beyond the lives of the present generation is a fair definition of permanent in a this context.

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Blogger Roger Moore said...

There's a bigger danger for the Republicans than winning and then overreaching: losing outright. Just think about what would happen if the Democrats muster the courage to pass a good Health Care Reform bill despite the Republican-lead frenzy. They'll get all the credit for its success (win #1) and they'll get a big stick to use in future arguments with the Republicans (win #2). "We brought you this program you like and the other guys lied and said it would kill Granny" is a very nice argument to bring out in future policy discussions.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Enlightened Layperson said...

Quite so! And I assume that is why they are so frantic to block this bill, because of what it might mean to them politically if it passes and is popular. And also why it is so important to pass something good. Even apart from the merits of the bill itself, it will discourage such tactics in the future.

11:39 AM  

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