Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Big Structural Change in Small Packags


Ezra Klein ("Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and America's politics of epiphany") usefully points out something that may come as a bit of a downer: no Democratic presidential candidate is going to be able to carry through much of their program, and it's perfectly possible they won't be able to carry through any at all. Biden expecting "an epiphany among many of my Republican friends" is every bit as delusional as Sanders with his project of recruiting the masses to do it, the way Woodrow Wilson forced Republican senators to ratify the Versailles Treaty and join the League of Nations:
“You go to Mitch McConnell’s state of Kentucky, which is a state where a lot of people are struggling, and you say to those people, ‘Okay, this is my proposal,’” Sanders replied. “We’re going to lower the age of Medicare from 65 to 55, and we’re expanding it to cover, as I mentioned, dental care and home health care and eyeglasses and hearing aids.
“What percentage of the people do you think in Kentucky would support that proposal? My guess is 70 percent, 80 percent of the people. And my job then as president is to rally those people and tell their senators to support it. I think we can do that.”

Oh wait, Wilson didn't get that done. When he gave his speech at Coeur d'Alene on 12 September 1919, the good people of Idaho did not rise to order Senator Borah to vote for the treaty, and he remained Irreconcilable. (Thing I learned: Senator Borah, leader of the Irreconcilables, was not an isolationist, as they tell you in high school, but a Teddy Roosevelt progressive and a strong supporter of Wilson's war; but he didn't like the mutual defense provisions of the treaty, which might oblige the US to furnish troops to any and all wars that might come up, and was appalled by the treaty's punishment of Germany, which he thought might doom the Weimar Republic—in which he was right.) And that was a time when parties didn't seem polarized at all.
But Biden isn’t alone in running on an unlikely theory of change. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are all running on a theory in which the force of their personality, or the strength of their movement, or the popularity of their agenda breaks the polarization that has gridlocked US politics.
But why is it that every presidential candidate needs a fantastical step between being elected president and turning their promises into policy? In many countries, this whole conversation would be puzzling. Parties run on agendas, and if they win, they implement those agendas, or at least a substantial part of them.
That’s not the case in America, where divided government is common, the filibuster forces supermajority levels of consensus in the Senate, electoral geography dilutes the power of popular majorities, and polarized parties make compromise impossible. Here, parties run on ambitious agendas and, when they win, typically find themselves foiled in their efforts to pass much of anything at all. Elections then devolve into bitter games of blame-shifting, in which the question isn’t how the public feels about what did happen but who the public holds responsible for what didn’t happen.
It's not nice to suggest that "nothing can be done, ever," as our old friend Susan of Texas always put it, but that last paragraph is right: the structural obstacles are immense in the United States, really unlike other countries, and the polarization—the disappearance starting in the 1980s of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans—has made it all but impossible to change the structure (and dangerous; getting rid of the filibuster for judicial nominations is what has enabled Leonard Leo to personally take over the process and compromise the integrity of the federal bench with his reactionary and unqualified nominees).

I'll add: other countries can afford to have ideologically coherent parties, because they have lots of them, and they have to form coalitions that are inevitably not ideologically coherent; when the US achieved an ideologically coherent party system without changing the structural obstacles, coalitions of the kind that passed the New Deal and Great Society legislation became strictly impossible. The Obama administration (as Klein points out) accomplished more than any administration since Johnson's,
But it was a fraction of what he promised, and the bills that did pass were shot through with compromises and concessions. Arguments rage to this day among liberals about why Obama wasn’t able to pass a bigger stimulus, force through a public option, find the votes for cap and trade, reform the immigration system, and get Merrick Garland onto the Supreme Court. He promised hope and change, but not enough changed, and that robbed the activists he inspired of hope.
And lost the House and what had for a while almost been a supermajority in the Senate (recalcitrant Democrats like Landrieu, Nelson, and Lieberman had made the supermajority ineffective and it died altogether when Senator Ted Kennedy did) after just two years. The "shellacking" of 2010 was just about guaranteed by the electoral geography.

But is it true that every president needs a "fantastical step between being elected president and turning their promises into policy", a kind of Underpants Gnomes campaign? Klein leaves Amy Klobuchar out of that list, with the thought that the modesty of her promises and depth of her understanding of Senate culture suggest that she'd be uniquely able to exceed expectations, by keeping them low.

I think there's something to that, but I think he also misunderestimates Elizabeth Warren (that word has a potential meaning!) in this context: we got a fuller picture of what she has in mind in November when she finally revealed her timetable for implementing universal health care as a series of achievable steps with
executive actions she could unilaterally take as president, from direct negotiations with drug companies to making Medicare cover dental services and ordering the Justice Department to defend, not attack, Obamacare against conservative lawsuits
and legislation curbing lobbying, expanding access to the Obamacare individual market, creating a no-premium public option, and allowing 50-year-olds to buy into Medicare, each of them progress in its own right, to lead up to introducing a comprehensive bill in the third year. What struck me is that if though many of the individual pieces of the plan, including the Medicare For All bill itself, are pretty likely to fail, she'd still have really made something happen, and people could start getting used to things getting a little better here and there and everywhere. You can denounce that as incrementalism, which is what happened in November, when the epiphany people all jumped on her, and was the point where her surge in popularity stopped, but I think it deserved a chance and still does.

Incremental, but on an accelerated schedule, and keeping the end goal absolutely in view. Big structural change needs to be wrapped in small packages.

It would be good if she won the election, and it would be good to make a break out of the cycle of robbed hope, and get people used to the idea that good things can happen.

And a positive line, rather than a panicky one, to recommend the constitutional changes we need to get around the impotence Klein is warning us about: "You think this is good? Wait till California has ten senators!" Well, maybe not. But I do wish we had some pundits talking about the plausibility of this approach, and hope voters will start recognizing Warren's current campaign strategy as the candidate who can bridge between the epiphanists.

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